Dampening prey cycle overrides the impact of climate change on predator population dynamics: a long-term demographic study on tawny owls

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Abstract

Predicting the dynamics of animal populations with different life histories requires careful understanding of demographic responses to multifaceted aspects of global changes, such as climate and trophic interactions. Continent-scale dampening of vole population cycles, keystone herbivores in many ecosystems, has been recently documented across Europe. However, its impact on guilds of vole-eating predators remains unknown. To quantify this impact, we used a 27-year study of an avian predator (tawny owl) and its main prey (field vole) collected in Kielder Forest (UK) where vole dynamics shifted from a high- to a low-amplitude fluctuation regime in the mid-1990s. We measured the functional responses of four demographic rates to changes in prey dynamics and winter climate, characterized by wintertime North Atlantic Oscillation (wNAO). First-year and adult survival were positively affected by vole density in autumn but relatively insensitive to wNAO. The probability of breeding and number of fledglings were higher in years with high spring vole densities and negative wNAO (i.e. colder and drier winters). These functional responses were incorporated into a stochastic population model. The size of the predator population was projected under scenarios combining prey dynamics and winter climate to test whether climate buffers or alternatively magnifies the impact of changes in prey dynamics. We found the observed dampening vole cycles, characterized by low spring densities, drastically reduced the breeding probability of predators. Our results illustrate that (i) change in trophic interactions can override direct climate change effect; and (ii) the demographic resilience entailed by longevity and the occurrence of a floater stage may be insufficient to buffer hypothesized environmental changes. Ultimately, dampened prey cycles would drive our owl local population towards extinction, with winter climate regimes only altering persistence time. These results suggest that other vole-eating predators are likely to be threatened by dampening vole cycles throughout Europe.

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