- Predators can provide a valuable ecosystem service by suppressing crop pests. However, intraguild predation, where predators compete for the same prey resource whilst consuming each other, may destabilize population dynamics and increase the risk of pest outbreaks. Very little is known about intraguild predation in open fields or the strengths of trophic links between predators which may negatively affect pest control.
- We tested the null hypothesis that predation by the epigeal predator Pterostichus melanarius (Coleoptera: Carabidae) on different spiders is species-independent (proportional to density). A combination of population monitoring in winter wheat, molecular identification of juvenile spiders, molecular analysis of predator gut contents and a Monte Carlo simulation model were used to analyse prey choice.
- Pterostichus melanarius were pitfall-trapped over three months, and 622 individuals were screened for the remains of four spider species. Predation rates on spiders were 43·6% in June and 33·3% in August and showed clear evidence of prey choice.
- Predation on the web-dependent Tenuiphantes tenuis (Linyphiidae) was significantly greater than predicted from a random choice model, while predation on Bathyphantes gracilis (Linyphiidae) was significantly lower. The beetles may be selecting the most abundant species disproportionately (switching) or responding in some cases to spatial niche separation (T. tenuis locate their webs marginally lower than B. gracilis). However, two itinerant hunters, Erigone spp. (Linyphiidae) and Pachygnatha degeeri (Tetragnathidae), were consumed in proportion to their density.
- Synthesis and applications. High levels of intraguild predation were revealed using molecular diagnostics. The gut analysis approach provided invaluable data that will inform the future design of appropriate pest management and integrated farming strategies that encourage these predators. The data showed strong evidence of prey choice. Managers can, however, probably encourage high densities of all these known aphid predators (spiders and carabids) because disproportionately high rates of predation on the most common spiders at our field sites (T. tenuis) were not sufficient to prevent strong growth in the density of this species between June and August (adults increased × 1·6 and juveniles × 8·6). Such work is essential if we are to reveal the processes behind functional biodiversity in crops.