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Pumas as ecosystem engineers: ungulate carcasses support beetle assemblages in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem

Barry, Joshua M., Elbroch, L. Mark, Aiello-Lammens, Matthew E., Sarno, Ronald J., Seelye, Lisa, Kusler, Anna, Quigley, Howard B., Grigione, Melissa M.
Oecologia 2019 v.189 no.3 pp. 577-586
Coleoptera, dead animals, ecosystem engineers, ecosystem services, ecosystems, habitats, invertebrates, life history, models, predators, process control, species richness, ungulates, United States
Ecosystem engineers create physical changes in abiotic and biotic material, and through this process control the availability of resources for other species. Predators that abandon large portions of their prey may be ecosystem engineers that create habitat for carrion-dependent invertebrates that utilize carcasses during critical life-history periods. Between 04-May-2016 and 04-Oct-2016, we sampled beetle assemblages at 18 carcasses of prey killed by pumas and matching control sites in the southern Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, USA, to measure the extent to which beetle families utilized these carcass “habitats”. We used generalized linear-mixed models and linear-mixed effect models to examine changes in beetle abundance, species richness, and Simpson’s Index of Diversity. We estimated kill rates and carrion production rates for individual pumas to better assess the impact of pumas on invertebrate communities. We collected 24,209 beetles representing 215 species. We identified eight beetle families that had significantly higher abundance at carcasses than control sites. Carcasses had a statistically large to very large effect (determined using Cohen’s d) on beetle abundance, richness, and diversity for the initial 8 weeks of sampling. Our research revealed strong effects of an ecosystem engineer on beetle assemblages while highlighting the potential role of apex predators in creating and modifying physical habitats for carrion-dependent species. This suggests that there may be consequences for invertebrate communities where apex predators exist at reduced numbers or have been eradicated. The ecological role of invertebrates is often overlooked, yet they are essential taxa that provide critical ecological services upon which we depend.