skip to main content

Title: Human disturbance increases trophic niche overlap in terrestrial carnivore communities

Animal foraging and competition are defined by the partitioning of three primary niche axes: space, time, and resources. Human disturbance is rapidly altering the spatial and temporal niches of animals, but the impact of humans on resource consumption and partitioning—arguably the most important niche axis—is poorly understood. We assessed resource consumption and trophic niche partitioning as a function of human disturbance at the individual, population, and community levels using stable isotope analysis of 684 carnivores from seven communities in North America. We detected significant responses to human disturbance at all three levels of biological organization: individual carnivores consumed more human food subsidies in disturbed landscapes, leading to significant increases in trophic niche width and trophic niche overlap among species ranging from mesocarnivores to apex predators. Trophic niche partitioning is the primary mechanism regulating coexistence in many communities, and our results indicate that humans fundamentally alter resource niches and competitive interactions among terrestrial consumers. Among carnivores, niche overlap can trigger interspecific competition and intraguild predation, while the consumption of human foods significantly increases human–carnivore conflict. Our results suggest that human disturbances, especially in the form of food subsidies, may threaten carnivores by increasing the probability of both interspecific competition and human–carnivore more » conflict. Ultimately, these findings illustrate a potential decoupling of predator–prey dynamics, with impacts likely cascading to populations, communities, and ecosystems.

« less
Publication Date:
Journal Name:
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Page Range or eLocation-ID:
p. 26842-26848
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Abstract

    Direct and indirect interactions among predators affect predator fitness, distribution, and overall community structure. Yet, outside of experimental settings, such interactions are difficult to observe and thus poorly understood. Patterns of niche overlap among predators reflect and shape community interactions and may therefore help elucidate the nature and intensity of intraguild interactions. To better understand the coexistence of two apex predators, snow leopards (Panthera uncia) and wolves (Canis lupus), we investigated their spatial, temporal, and dietary niche overlap in summer in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan. We estimated population-level space use via spatial capture–recapture models based on noninvasive genetics and camera traps, diel activity patterns based on camera trap detections, and diet composition from prey remains in carnivore scats, from which we estimated coefficients between 0 and 1 for overlap in space, time, and diet, respectively. Snow leopards and wolves displayed moderate spatial partitioning (0.26, 95% confidence interval [CI]: 0.17–37), but overlapping temporal (0.77, 95% CI: 0.64–0.90) and dietary (0.97, 95% CI: 0.80–0.99) niches. Both predators relied on seasonally abundant marmots (Marmota caudata) rather than wild ungulates, their typical primary prey, suggesting that despite patterns of overlap that were superficially conducive to exploitation competition and predator facilitation, prey weremore »likely not a limiting factor. Therefore, prey-mediated interactions, if present, were unlikely to be a major structuring force in the ecosystem. By implication, carnivore conservation planning and monitoring in the mountains of Central Asia should more fully account for the seasonal importance of marmots in the ecosystem.

    « less
  2. Despite low species diversity and primary production, trophic structure (e.g., top predator species, predator size) is surprisingly variable among Arctic lakes. We investigated trophic structure in lakes of arctic Alaska containing arctic char Salvelinus alpinus using stomach contents and stable isotope ratios in two geographically-close but hydrologically-distinct lake clusters to investigate how these fish may interact and compete for limited food resources. Aside from different lake connectivity patterns (‘leaky’ versus ‘closed’), differing fish communities (up to five versus only two species) between lake clusters allowed us to test trophic hypotheses including: (1) arctic char are more piscivorous, and thereby grow larger and obtain higher trophic positions, in the presence of other fish species; and, (2) between arctic char size classes, resource polymorphism is more prominent, and thereby trophic niches are narrower and overlap less, in the absence of other predators. Regardless of lake cluster, we observed little direct evidence of arctic char consuming other fishes, but char were larger (mean TL = 468 vs 264 mm) and trophic position was higher (mean TP = 4.0 vs 3.8 for large char) in lakes with other fishes. Further, char demonstrated less intraspecific overlap when other predators were present whereas niche overlap wasmore »up to 100% in closed, char only lakes. As hydrologic characteristics (e.g., lake connectivity, water temperatures) will change across the Arctic owing to climate change, our results provide insight regarding potential concomitant changes to fish interactions and increase our understanding of lake trophic structure to guide management and conservation goals.« less
  3. Theories involving niche diversification to explain high levels of tropical diversity propose that species are more likely to co-occur if they partition at least one dimension of their ecological niche space. Yet, numerous species appear to have widely overlapping niches based upon broad categorizations of resource use or functional traits. In particular, the extent to which food partitioning contributes to species coexistence in hyperdiverse tropical ecosystems remains unresolved. Here, we use a molecular approach to investigate inter- and intraspecific dietary partitioning between two species of damselfish (Dascyllus flavicaudus, Chromis viridis) that commonly co-occur in branching corals. Species-level identification of their diverse zooplankton prey revealed significant differences in diet composition between species despite their seemingly similar feeding strategies. Dascyllus exhibited a more diverse diet than Chromis, whereas Chromis tended to select larger prey items. A large calanoid copepod, Labidocera sp., found in low density and higher in the water column during the day, explained more than 19% of the variation in dietary composition between Dascyllus and Chromis. Dascyllus did not significantly shift its diet in the presence of Chromis, which suggests intrinsic differences in feeding behaviour. Finally, prey composition significantly shifted during the ontogeny of both fish species. Our findings showmore »that levels of dietary specialization among coral reef associated species have likely been underestimated, and they underscore the importance of characterizing trophic webs in tropical ecosystems at higher levels of taxonomic resolution. They also suggest that niche redundancy may not be as common as previously thought.« less
  4. Gilbert, Jack A. (Ed.)
    ABSTRACT Biological soil crusts (biocrusts) are widespread in drylands and deserts. At the microhabitat scale, they also host hypolithic communities that live under semitranslucent stones. Both environmental niches experience exposure to extreme conditions such as high UV radiation, desiccation, temperature fluctuations, and resource limitation. However, hypolithic communities are somewhat protected from extremes relative to biocrust communities. Conditions are otherwise similar, so comparing them can answer outstanding questions regarding adaptations to environmental extremes. Using metagenomic sequencing, we assessed the functional potential of dryland soil communities and identified the functional underpinnings of ecological niche differentiation in biocrusts versus hypoliths. We also determined the effect of the anchoring photoautotroph (moss or cyanobacteria). Genes and pathways differing in abundance between biocrusts and hypoliths indicate that biocrust communities adapt to the higher levels of UV radiation, desiccation, and temperature extremes through an increased ability to repair damaged DNA, sense and respond to environmental stimuli, and interact with other community members and the environment. Intracellular competition appears to be crucial to both communities, with biocrust communities using the Type VI Secretion System (T6SS) and hypoliths favoring a diversity of antibiotics. The dominant primary producer had a reduced effect on community functional potential compared with niche, butmore »an abundance of genes related to monosaccharide, amino acid, and osmoprotectant uptake in moss-dominated communities indicates reliance on resources provided to heterotrophs by mosses. Our findings indicate that functional traits in dryland communities are driven by adaptations to extremes and we identify strategies that likely enable survival in dryland ecosystems. IMPORTANCE Biocrusts serve as a keystone element of desert and dryland ecosystems, stabilizing soils, retaining moisture, and serving as a carbon and nitrogen source in oligotrophic environments. Biocrusts cover approximately 12% of the Earth’s terrestrial surface but are threatened by climate change and anthropogenic disturbance. Given their keystone role in ecosystem functioning, loss will have wide-spread consequences. Biocrust microbial constituents must withstand polyextreme environmental conditions including high UV exposure, desiccation, oligotrophic conditions, and temperature fluctuations over short time scales. By comparing biocrust communities with co-occurring hypolithic communities (which inhabit the ventral sides of semitranslucent stones and are buffered from environmental extremes), we identified traits that are likely key adaptations to extreme conditions. These include DNA damage repair, environmental sensing and response, and intracellular competition. Comparison of the two niches, which differ primarily in exposure levels to extreme conditions, makes this system ideal for understanding how functional traits are structured by the environment.« less
  5. Austin, A (Ed.)
    Sympatric large mammalian herbivore species differ in diet composition, both by eating different parts of the same plant and by eating different plant species. Various theories proposed to explain these differences are not mutually exclusive, but are difficult to reconcile and confront with data. Moreover, whereas several of these ideas were originally developed with reference to within-plant partitioning (i.e., consumption of different tissues), they may analogously apply to partitioning of plant species; this possibility has received little attention. Plant functional traits provide a novel window into herbivore diets and a means of testing multiple hypotheses in a unified framework. We used DNA metabarcoding to characterize the diets of 14 sympatric large-herbivore species in an African savanna and analyzed diet composition in light of 27 functional traits that we measured locally for 204 plant species. Plant traits associated with the deep phylogenetic split between grasses and eudicots formed the primary axis of resource partitioning, affirming the generality and importance of the grazer-browser spectrum. A secondary axis comprised plant traits relevant to herbivore body size. Plant taxa in the diets of large-bodied species were lower on average in digestible energy and protein, taller on average (especially among grazers), and tended to bemore »higher in tensile strength, zinc, stem-specific density, and potassium (and lower in sodium, stem dry matter content, and copper). These results are consistent with longstanding hypotheses linking body size with forage quality and height, yet they also suggest the existence of undiscovered links between herbivore body size and a set of rarely considered food-plant traits. We also tested the novel hypothesis that the leaf economic spectrum (LES), a major focus in plant ecology, is an axis of resource partitioning in large-herbivore assemblages; we found that the LES was a minor axis of individual variation within a few species, but had little effect on interspecific dietary differentiation. Synthesis. These results identify key plant traits that underpin the partitioning of food-plant species in large-herbivore communities and suggest that accounting for multiple plant traits (and tradeoffs among them) will enable a deeper understanding of herbivore-plant interaction networks.« less