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Ecological Society of America

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A hydra effect occurs when the mean density of a species increases in response to greater mortality. We show that, in a stable multispecies system, a species exhibits a hydra effect only if maintaining that species at its equilibrium density destabilizes the system. The stability of the original system is due to the responses of the hydra-effect species to changes in the other species’ densities. If that dynamical feedback is removed by fixing the density of the hydra-effect species, large changes in the community make-up (including the possibility of species extinction) can occur. This general result has several implications: (1) Hydra effects occur in a much wider variety of species and interaction webs than has previously been described, and may occur for multiple species, even in small webs; (2) conditions for hydra effects caused by predators (or diseases) often differ from those caused by other mortality factors; (3) introducing a specialist or a switching predator of a hydra-effect species often causes large changes in the community, which frequently involve extinction of other species; (4) harvest policies that attempt to maintain a constant density of a hydra-effect species may be difficult to implement, and, if successful, are likely to cause large changes in the densities of other species; and (5) trophic cascades and other indirect effects caused by predators of hydra-effect species can exhibit amplification of effects or unexpected directions of change. Although we concentrate on systems that are originally stable and models with no stage-structure or trait variation, the generality of our result suggests that similar responses to mortality will occur in many systems without these simplifying assumptions. In addition, while hydra effects are defined as responses to altered mortality, they also imply counterintuitive responses to changes in immigration and other parameters affecting population growth.