The Spatial Ecology of Predator-Prey Interactions: A Case Study of Yellowstone Elk, Wolves, and Cougars
Date of Award:
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Daniel R. MacNulty
Daniel R. MacNulty
Kari E. Veblen
Karen H. Beard
James D. Forester
Joseph M. Wheaton
The loss of large apex predators, and their subsequent reintroduction, has been identified as a substantial driver on the structure and function of ecological communities through behavioral mediated trophic cascades (BMTCs). The reintroduction of wolves (Canis lupus) to Yellowstone National Park (YNP) has served as foundational case study of BMTCs. In our system, it has been suggested that wolves have established a ‘landscape of fear’ in which the primary prey, elk (Cervus elaphus), now avoid risky places, which ultimately led to the recovery of the vegetation community. Although this case is frequently cited as a well-understood example of a landscape of fear, researchers never quantified whether elk avoided risky places, a critical component of the BMTC hypothesis. Thus, I employed numerous quantitative approaches to evaluate the role of wolves and cougars on elk habitat selection in northern Yellowstone. The results from this work suggest that the daily activity schedule of wolves provide a temporally predictable period of risk that allows elk to use risky places during safe times. As such, diel predator activity flattened (i.e., made less risky) the landscape of fear for 16 hours per day, 7 days a week, which permitted elk to forage on deciduous woody plants despite the presence of wolves. Thus, suggests that any trophic cascade in northern Yellowstone is likely driven by the consumptive effects of wolves on elk. In addition, my results suggest that daily activity patterns are an important component of predation risk, and as such, provide a predictable avenue for elk to avoid predators despite residing in an environment spatially saturated with wolves and cougars. Thus, the ability of elk to avoid predators through fine-scale spatial decisions provides support for my findings that the current spatial distribution of prey is largely driven by the consumptive effects of predators on the prey population, rather than a landscape of fear. In combination, these results suggest that the landscape of fear, and more generally, fear effects, may be of less relevance to conservation and management than direct killing within free-living, large landscapes.
Kohl, Michel T., "The Spatial Ecology of Predator-Prey Interactions: A Case Study of Yellowstone Elk, Wolves, and Cougars" (2019). All Graduate Theses and Dissertations. 7441.
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