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How do predators affect populations of the prey animals? The answer is not as simple as might be thought. Moose reached Isle Royale in Lake Superior by crossing over winter ice and multiplied freely there in isolation without predators. When wolves later reached the island, naturalists widely assumed that the wolves would play a key role in controlling the moose population. Careful studies have demonstrated, however, that this is not the case. The wolves eat mostly old or diseased animals that would not survive long anyway. In general, the moose population is controlled by food availability, disease, and other factors rather than by the wolves.
When experimental populations are set up under simple laboratory conditions, the predator often exterminates its prey and then becomes extinct itself, having nothing left to eat. However, if safe areas like those prey animals have in the wild are provided, the prey population drops to low levels but not to extinction. Low prey population levels then provide inadequate food for the predators, causing the predator population to decrease. When this occurs, the prey population can rebound. In this situation the predator and prey populations may continue in this cyclical pattern for some time.
Population cycles are characteristic of some species of small mammals, and they sometimes appear to be brought about by predators. Ecologists studying hare populations have found that the North American snowshoe hare follows a roughly ten-year cycle. Its numbers fall tenfold to thirtyfold in a typical cycle, and a hundredfold change can occur. Two factors appear to be generating the cycle: food plants and predators.
The preferred foods of snowshoe hares are willow and birch twigs. As hare density increases, the quantity of these twigs decreases, forcing the hares to feed on low-quality, high-fiber food. Lower birth rates, low juvenile survivorship, and low growth rates follow, so there is a corresponding decline in hare abundance. Once the hare population has declined, it takes two to three years for the quantity of twigs to recover.
A key predator of the snowshoe hare is the Canada lynx. The Canada lynx shows a ten-year cycle of abundance that parallels the abundance cycle of hares. As hare numbers increase, lynx numbers do too, rising in response to the increased availability of lynx food.
What causes the predator-prey oscillations? Do increasing numbers of hares lead to overharvesting of plants, which in turn results in reduced hare populations, or do increasing numbers of lynx lead to overharvesting of hares? Field experiments carried out by Charles Krebs and coworkers in 1992 provide an answer. Krebs investigated experimental plots in Canada`s Yukon territory that contained hare populations. When food was added to these plots (no food effect) and predators were excluded (no predator effect) from an experimental area, hare numbers increased tenfold and stayed there-the cycle was lost. However, the cycle was retained if either of the factors was allowed to operate alone: if predators were excluded but food was not added (food effect alone), or if food was added in the presence of predators (predator effect alone). Thus, both factors can affect the cycle, which, in practice, seems to be generated by the conjunction of the two factors.
Predators are an essential factor in maintaining communities that are rich and diverse in species. Without predators, the species that is the best competitor for food, shelter, nesting sites, and other environmental resources tends to dominate and exclude the species with which it competes. This phenomenon is known as "competitor exclusion." However, if the community contains a predator of the strongest competitor species, then the population of that competitor is controlled. Thus even the less competitive species are able to survive. For example, sea stars prey on a variety of bivalve mollusks and prevent these bivalves from monopolizing habitats on the sea floor. This opens up space for many other organisms. When sea stars are removed, species diversity falls sharply. Therefore, from the standpoint of diversity, it is usually a mistake to eliminate a major predator from a community.