Do predators limit the abundance of alternative prey? Experiments with vole-eating avian and mammalian predators

Authors

  • Kai Norrdahl,

  • Erkki Korpimäki


K. Norrdahl and E. Korpimäki, Section of Ecology, Dept of Biology, Univ. Of Turku, FIN-20014 Turku, Finland (kainor@utu.fi).

Abstract

Predation has been invoked as a factor synchronizing the population oscillations of sympatric prey species, either because predators kill prey unselectively (the Shared Predation Hypothesis; hereafter SPH), or because predators switch to alternative prey after a density decline in their main prey (the Alternative Prey Hypothesis; APH). A basic assumption of the APH is that the impact of predators on alternative prey depends more on the density of main prey than on the predator/alternative prey ratio. Both SPH and APH assume that the impact of predators on alternative prey is at least periodically strong enough to depress prey populations. To examine these assumptions, we utilized data from replicated field experiments in large areas where we reduced the breeding densities of avian predators during three years and the numbers of least weasels (Mustela nivalis) in two years when vole populations declined. In addition, we reduced the breeding densities of avian predators in two years when vole populations were high. The reduction of least weasels increased the abundance of their alternative prey, small birds breeding on the ground, but did not affect the abundance of common shrews (Sorex araneus). In years when vole populations declined, the reduction of avian predators increased the abundance of their alternative prey, common shrews and small birds. Therefore, vole-eating predators do at least periodically depress the abundance of their alternative prey. At high vole densities, the reduction of avian predators did not increase the abundance of common shrews, although the ratio of avian predators to alternative prey was similar to years when vole populations declined, which supported APH. In contrast, the abundance of small birds increased after the reduction of avian predators also at high vole densities, which supported SPH. The manipulations had no obvious effect on the number of game birds, which are only occasionally killed by these small-sized predators. We conclude that in communities where most predators are small or specialize on a single prey type, the synchronizing impact of predation is restricted to a few similar-sized species.

Ancillary