Ecological theory predicts that generalist predators should damp or suppress long-term periodic fluctuations (cycles) in their prey populations and depress their average densities. However, the magnitude of these impacts is likely to vary depending on the availability of alternative prey species and the nature of ecological mechanisms driving the prey cycles. These multispecies effects can be modeled explicitly if parameterized functions relating prey consumption to prey abundance, and realistic population dynamical models for the prey, are available. These requirements are met by the interaction between the Hen Harrier (Circus cyaneus) and three of its prey species in the United Kingdom, the Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis), the field vole (Microtus agrestis), and the Red Grouse (Lagopus lagopus scoticus). We used this system to investigate how the availability of alternative prey and the way in which prey dynamics are modeled might affect the behavior of simple trophic networks. We generated cycles in one of the prey species (Red Grouse) in three different ways: through (1) the interaction between grouse density and macroparasites, (2) the interaction between grouse density and male grouse aggressiveness, and (3) a generic, delayed density-dependent mechanism. Our results confirm that generalist predation can damp or suppress grouse cycles, but only when the densities of alternative prey are low. They also demonstrate that diametrically opposite indirect effects between pairs of prey species can occur together in simple systems. In this case, pipits and grouse are apparent competitors, whereas voles and grouse are apparent facilitators. Finally, we found that the quantitative impacts of the predator on prey density differed among the three models of prey dynamics, and these differences were robust to uncertainty in parameter estimation and environmental stochasticity.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics