A central debate in ecology has been the long‐running discussion on the role of apex predators in affecting the abundance and dynamics of their prey. In terrestrial systems, research has primarily relied on correlational approaches, due to the challenge of implementing robust experiments with replication and appropriate controls. A consequence of this is that we largely suffer from a lack of mechanistic understanding of the population dynamics of interacting species, which can be surprisingly complex. Mechanistic models offer an opportunity to examine the causes and consequences of some of this complexity. We present a bioenergetic mechanistic model of a tritrophic system where the primary vegetation resource follows a seasonal growth function, and the herbivore and carnivore species are modeled using two integral projection models (IPMs) with body mass as the phenotypic trait. Within each IPM, the demographic functions are structured according to bioenergetic principles, describing how animals acquire and transform resources into body mass, energy reserves, and breeding potential. We parameterize this model to reproduce the population dynamics of grass, elk, and wolves in northern Yellowstone National Park (USA) and investigate the impact of wolf reintroduction on the system. Our model generated predictions that closely matched the observed population sizes of elk and wolf in Yellowstone prior to and following wolf reintroduction. The introduction of wolves into our basal grass–elk bioenergetic model resulted in a population of 99 wolves and a reduction in elk numbers by 61% (from 14,948 to 5823) at equilibrium. In turn, vegetation biomass increased by approximately 25% in the growing season and more than threefold in the nongrowing season. The addition of wolves to the model caused the elk population to switch from being food‐limited to being predator‐limited and had a stabilizing effect on elk numbers across different years. Wolf predation also led to a shift in the phenotypic composition of the elk population via a small increase in elk average body mass. Our model represents a novel approach to the study of predator–prey interactions, and demonstrates that explicitly considering and linking bioenergetics, population demography and body mass phenotypes can provide novel insights into the mechanisms behind complex ecosystem processes.
Top predators have cascading effects throughout the food web, but their impacts on scavenger abundance are largely unknown. Gray wolves (
- NSF-PAR ID:
- Publisher / Repository:
- Wiley Blackwell (John Wiley & Sons)
- Date Published:
- Journal Name:
- Ecology and Evolution
- Page Range / eLocation ID:
- p. 11158-11168
- Medium: X
- Sponsoring Org:
- National Science Foundation
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Gray wolf (
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While the functional response of predators is commonly measured, recent work has revealed that the age and sex composition of prey killed is often a better predictor of prey population dynamics because the reproductive value of adult females is usually higher than that of males or juveniles.
Climate is often an important mediating factor in determining the composition of predator kills, but we currently lack a mechanistic understanding of how the multiple facets of climate interact with prey abundance and demography to influence the composition of predator kills.
Over 20 winters, we monitored 17 wolf packs in Yellowstone National Park and recorded the sex, age and nutritional condition of kills of their dominant prey—elk—in both early and late winter periods when elk are in relatively good and relatively poor condition, respectively.
Nutritional condition (as indicated by per cent marrow fat) of wolf‐killed elk varied markedly with summer plant productivity, snow water equivalent (SWE) and winter period. Moreover, marrow was poorer for wolf‐killed bulls and especially for calves than it was for cows.
Wolf prey composition was influenced by a complex set of climatic and endogenous variables. In early winter, poor plant growth in either year
tor t− 1, or relatively low elk abundance, increased the odds of wolves killing bulls relative to cows. Calves were most likely to get killed when elk abundance was high and when the forage productivity they experienced in utero was poor. In late winter, low SWE and a relatively large elk population increased the odds of wolves killing calves relative to cows, whereas low SWE and poor vegetation productivity 1 year prior together increased the likelihood of wolves killing a bull instead of a cow.
Since climate has a strong influence on whether wolves prey on cows (who, depending on their age, are the key reproductive components of the population) or lower reproductive value of calves and bulls, our results suggest that climate can drive wolf predation to be more or less additive from year to year.