Top predators, mesopredators and their prey: interference ecosystems along bioclimatic productivity gradients


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1. The Mesopredator Release Hypothesis (MRH) suggests that top predator suppression of mesopredators is a key ecosystem function with cascading impacts on herbivore prey, but it remains to be shown that this top-down cascade impacts the large-scale structure of ecosystems.

2. The Exploitation Ecosystems Hypothesis (EEH) predicts that regional ecosystem structures are determined by top-down exploitation and bottom-up productivity. In contrast to MRH, EEH assumes that interference among predators has a negligible impact on the structure of ecosystems with three trophic levels.

3. We use the recolonization of a top predator in a three-level boreal ecosystem as a natural experiment to test if large-scale biomass distributions and population trends support MRH. Inspired by EEH, we also test if top-down interference and bottom-up productivity impact regional ecosystem structures.

4. We use data from the Finnish Wildlife Triangle Scheme which has monitored top predator (lynx Lynx lynx), mesopredator (red fox Vulpes vulpes) and prey (mountain hare Lepus timidus) abundance for 17 years in a 200 000 km2 study area which covers a distinct productivity gradient.

5. Fox biomass was lower than expected from productivity where lynx biomass was high, whilst hare biomass was lower than expected from productivity where fox biomass was high. Hence, where interference controlled fox abundance, lynx had an indirect positive impact on hare abundance as predicted by MRH. The rates of change indicated that lynx expansion gradually suppressed fox biomass.

6. Lynx status caused shifts between ecosystem structures. In the ‘interference ecosystem’, lynx and hare biomass increased with productivity whilst fox biomass did not. In the ‘mesopredator release ecosystem’, fox biomass increased with productivity but hare biomass did not. Thus, biomass controlled top-down did not respond to changes in productivity. This fulfils a critical prediction of EEH.

7. We conclude that the cascade involving top predators, mesopredators and their prey can determine large-scale biomass distribution patterns and regional ecosystem structures. Hence, interference within trophic levels has to be taken into account to understand how terrestrial ecosystem structures are shaped.