Lions, cheetahs, and dogs, oh my! Part 2.
Last week, we left off with this crazy biological paradox: lions kill cheetah cubs left and right, yet as the Serengeti lion population tripled over the last 40 years, cheetah numbers remained stable.
As crazy as it sounds, it seems that that even though lions kill cheetah cubs left and right, it doesn’t really matter for cheetah populations. There are a number of reasons this could be. For example, cheetahs are able to have cubs again really quickly after they lose a litter, so it doesn’t take long to “replace” those lost cubs. It’s also possible that lions might only be killing cubs that would probably die from another source – say, cubs that would otherwise have died from starvation, or cubs that might have been killed by hyenas. Whatever the reason, what we’re seeing is that lions killing cheetah cubs doesn’t have an effect on the total number of cheetahs in the area.
I think this might hold true for other animals, not just cheetahs. It’s a bit of a weird concept to wrap your head around – that being killed, which is really bad if you’re that individual cheetah, doesn’t actually matter as much for the larger population – but it’s one that seems to be gaining traction among ecologists who study how different species live together in the natural world. Specifically, ecologists are getting excited about the role that behavior plays in driving population dynamics.
Most scientists have studied this phenomenon in predator-prey systems – say, wolves and elk, or wolf spiders and “leaf bugs”.
What scientists are discovering is that predators can suppress prey populations not by eating lots of prey, but by causing the prey to change their behavior. Unlike many spiders, wolf spiders actively hunt their prey – sometimes lurking in ambush, other times chasing their prey for some distance. To avoid being eaten, leaf bugs may avoid areas where wolf spiders have lots of hiding places from which to stage an ambush, or leaf bugs may avoid entire patches of land that have lots of wolf spiders. If these areas are the same ones that have lots of mirid bug food, then they’ve effectively lost their habitat. Sound familiar?
Back to Africa – what does this mean for wild dogs and cheetahs? Interestingly enough, lions do not displace cheetahs from large areas of the Serengeti. We’ve discovered this in part from historic radio-collar data that was collected simultaneously on both species in the late 1980’s. Below is a map that shows average lion density across the study area. Green indicates areas with higher densities. The black “+” symbols show where cheetah were tracked within the same study area. They are overwhelmingly more likely to be found in areas with lots of lions. This is because that is where the food is – and cheetahs are following their prey, regardless of the risk of encountering a lion. The Snapshot Serengeti data confirm this – cheetahs are way more likely to be caught on cameras inside lion territories.
Unfortunately, we don’t have radio-collar data on the Serengeti wild dogs from the 1980’s. But we do have radio-collar data for the wild dogs that have been living in the larger Serengeti ecosystem for the past 8 years. As you can see in the map below, wild dogs regularly roam within just 30km of the lion study area. But they don’t settle there – instead, wild dogs remain in hills to the east of Serengeti – where there are local people (who kill wild dogs), but very few lions.
Other researchers in east and southern Africa are starting to pick up on the same patterns in their parks. From Tanzania, to Botswana, to South Africa, researchers are finding that wild dogs get kicked out of really large, prime areas by lions…but that cheetahs do not. What they’re finding (since they have all these animals GPS-collared) is that cheetahs are responding to lions at a very immediate scale. Instead of avoiding habitats that have lions, cheetahs maintain a “safe” distance from the lions – allowing them to use their preferred habitats, but still minimize their risk of getting attacked.
Carnivore researchers are only really just beginning to explore the role of behavior in driving population-level suppression, but I think that there’s good reason to believe that large scale displacement, or other behaviors, for that matter, have greater effects on population numbers of cheetahs and wild dogs, as well as other “subordinate” carnivores – not just in African ecosystems but in systems around the world. It’s a new way of thinking about how competing species all live together in one place, but it’s one that might change the way we approach carnivore conservation for threatened species.