Essays on Science and SocietyScience & SciLifeLab Prize

The mechanistic pathways of trophic interactions in human-occupied landscapes

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Science  04 Dec 2015:
Vol. 350, Issue 6265, pp. 1175-1176
DOI: 10.1126/science.aad7134

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From children's stories to the logos of professional sports teams, images on commercial products, and the icons of conservation, few organisms capture our imagination like large carnivores. From a scientific perspective, understanding the context in which predators shape ecosystem processes is one of the most pressing endeavors in modern ecology (1). In central Kenya, large carnivores—such as leopards and globally endangered African wild dogs—prey upon antelope, which themselves limit the abundance of plants. These wildlife species vie with commercial ranchers, as well as traditional pastoralists and their livestock for limited resources (2). Together, these actors interact against a backdrop of pronounced environmental variation and the unique patchwork of trees on grassland that characterizes tropical savannas. Through my dissertation research, I combined long-term monitoring of wildlife populations, high-resolution satellite imagery, fine-scale tracking of animal movements, and a series of field experiments to quantify these interactions and their consequences for ecosystem structure.