Environmental variation as a driver of predator-prey interactions
Peer reviewed, Journal article
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Original versionEcosphere 2014, 5(12) 10.1890/ES14-00121.1
Animals often face the trade-off of optimizing foraging while limiting predation. In variable and seasonal environments the availability of resources changes spatially and temporally, forcing animals to adapt their spatial foraging patterns over time and, thus, to modify their exposure to predation. Previous research has mostly dealt with the causes and consequences of animal spatial patterns separately, with studies either examining how changes in the environment influence habitat selection, or determining the effects of habitat use on vulnerability to predation. Here we combine these aspects through an examination of how weather conditions affect predation risk by modifying the spatial behavior of the prey. We used reindeer calves (Rangifer tarandus) in Norway to investigate (1) the environmental causes and (2) the survival consequences of habitat use. We further examined how those relationships varied temporally and according to the body mass of calves. We found that deep snow and ice conditions led reindeer to shift from their usually preferred high-elevation pastures to lowland forested areas. This increase in forest use was associated with lower calf survival, mostly due to elevated lynx (Lynx lynx) predation rates. Golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) and wolverines (Gulo gulo) also preyed on calves but their effect was much smaller and not associated with a specific habitat type. The link between climatic conditions, habitat use, and predation changed over the winter season and depended on the body weights of the calves. The effect of harsh weather conditions on reindeer use of forested habitats was stronger towards the end of the winter, which coincides with more deteriorated body conditions and lower food availability on high-elevation pastures, and predation probabilities were higher for smaller individuals. Our study demonstrates that environmental variation importantly affects predator-prey interactions. Key words: ecological trade-off; habitat use; Norwegian semidomestic reindeer; predation rates; predator-prey dynamics; Rangifer tarandus; seasonal environments; ungulate foraging ecology; weather variability.