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Cascading impacts of large-carnivore extirpation in an African ecosystem

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Science  07 Mar 2019:
eaau3561
DOI: 10.1126/science.aau3561

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Abstract

The world’s largest carnivores are declining and now occupy mere fractions of their historical ranges. Theory predicts that when apex predators disappear, large herbivores should become less fearful, occupy new habitats, and modify those habitats by eating new food plants. Yet experimental support for this prediction has been difficult to obtain in large-mammal systems. Following the extirpation of leopards and African wild dogs from Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, forest-dwelling antelopes (bushbuck, Tragelaphus sylvaticus) expanded into treeless floodplains, where they consumed novel diets and suppressed a common food plant (waterwort, Bergia mossambicensis). By experimentally simulating predation risk, we demonstrate that this behavior was reversible. Thus, whereas anthropogenic predator extinction disrupted a trophic cascade by enabling rapid differentiation of prey behavior, carnivore restoration may just as rapidly reestablish that cascade.

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