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Keywords:

  • fisher;
  • mesocarnivore;
  • mesopredator release hypothesis;
  • intraguild predation;
  • predator communities;
  • meta-analysis;
  • range contraction;
  • range expansion

Abstract

Some central and eastern populations of fisher Pekania [Martes] pennanti are expanding their ranges following historic range contractions, while many western populations have yet to do so. We investigated whether expanding fisher populations are benefiting from a mesopredator release following reductions in their carnivore predator communities. This hypothesis posits that local extinctions of the largest predators ‘release’ mesopredator populations from direct predation and competition, leading to an increase in their abundance, expansion of their range and potentially to shifts in their morphology and ecological niche. Our comparison of the conservation status and predator communities of fishers across four geographic regions of their range supports the mesopredator release hypothesis, especially in their eastern range. Our meta-analysis of fisher diet also suggests that released fisher populations may benefit by complementing their diverse diets with more large-bodied prey species, whereas those with more specialized diets (e.g. northwestern populations) or diverse diets with small amounts of large-bodied prey (e.g. populations within California) have experienced little range expansion. Further, measurements of museum specimens suggest that individuals within released populations have evolved a larger body size since the time of their most contracted range, which may help them hunt larger prey species that are expected to be more available in the absence of larger carnivores. Collectively, these data support the hypothesis that a reduced predator community is contributing to the geographic variation in modern fishers' range expansion. In addition to harvest restrictions, habitat protection and translocations, future conservation plans should consider the potential effects of the predator community, emphasizing the need to quantify fisher mortality sources and fisher–predator interactions.