Wolves–coyotes–foxes: a cascade among carnivores

Authors


  • Corresponding Editor: E. T. Borer.

Abstract

Due to the widespread eradication of large canids and felids, top predators in many terrestrial ecosystems are now medium-sized carnivores such as coyotes. Coyotes have been shown to increase songbird and rodent abundance and diversity by suppressing populations of small carnivores such as domestic cats and foxes. The restoration of gray wolves to many parts of North America, however, could alter this interaction chain. Here we use a 30-year time series of wolf, coyote, and fox relative abundance from the state of Minnesota, USA, to show that wolves suppress coyote populations, which in turn releases foxes from top-down control by coyotes. In contrast to mesopredator release theory, which has often considered the consequence of top predator removal in a three-species interaction chain (e.g., coyote–fox–prey), the presence of the top predator releases the smaller predator in a four-species interaction chain. Thus, heavy predation by abundant small predators might be more similar to the historical ecosystem before top-predator extirpation. The restructuring of predator communities due to the loss or restoration of top predators is likely to alter the size spectrum of heavily consumed prey with important implications for biodiversity and human health.

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