Status and Ecological Effects of the World’s Largest Carnivores

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Science  10 Jan 2014:
Vol. 343, Issue 6167, 1241484
DOI: 10.1126/science.1241484

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Structured Abstract


The largest terrestrial species in the order Carnivora are wide-ranging and rare because of their positions at the top of food webs. They are some of the world’s most admired mammals and, ironically, some of the most imperiled. Most have experienced substantial population declines and range contractions throughout the world during the past two centuries. Because of the high metabolic demands that come with endothermy and large body size, these carnivores often require large prey and expansive habitats. These food requirements and wide-ranging behavior often bring them into conflict with humans and livestock. This, in addition to human intolerance, renders them vulnerable to extinction. Large carnivores face enormous threats that have caused massive declines in their populations and geographic ranges, including habitat loss and degradation,persecution, utilization, and depletion of prey. We highlight how these threats can affect theconservation status and ecological roles of this planet’s 31 largest carnivores.

Embedded Image

Ecologically important carnivores. Seven species of large carnivores with documented ecological effects involving (A) “tri-trophic cascades” from large carnivores to prey to plants, (B) “mesopredator cascades” from large carnivores to mesopredators to prey of mesopredators, and (C) both tri-trophic and mesopredator cascades. [Photo credits: sea otter (N. Smith), puma (W. Ripple), lion (K. Abley), leopard (A. Dey), Eurasianlynx (B. Elmhagen), dingo (A. McNab), gray wolf (D. Mclaughlin)]


Based on empirical studies, trophic cascades have been documented for 7 of the 31 largest mammalian carnivores (not including pinnipeds). For each of these species (see figure), human actions have both caused declines and contributed to recovery, providing “natural experiments” for quantifying their effects on food-web and community structure. Large carnivores deliver economic and ecosystem services via direct and indirect pathways that help maintain mammal, avian, invertebrate,and herpetofauna abundance or richness. Further, they affect other ecosystem processes and conditions, such as scavenger subsidies, disease dynamics, carbon storage, stream morphology, and crop production. The maintenance or recovery of ecologically effective densities of large carnivores is an important tool for maintaining the structure and function of diverse ecosystems.


Current ecological knowledge indicates that large carnivores are necessary for the maintenanceof biodiversity and ecosystem function. Human actions cannot fully replace the role of large carnivores. Additionally, the future of increasing human resource demands and changing climate will affect biodiversity and ecosystem resiliency. These facts, combined with the importance of resiliente cosystems, indicate that large carnivores and their habitats should be maintained and restored wherever possible. Preventing the extinction of these species and the loss of their irreplaceable ecological function and importance will require novel, bold, and deliberate actions. We propose a Global Large Carnivore Initiative to coordinate local, national, and international research, conservation, and policy.

Preserving Predators

Large-bodied animals play essential roles in ecosystem structuring and stability through both indirect and direct trophic effects. In recent times, humans have disrupted this trophic structure through both habitat destruction and active extirpation of large predators, resulting in large declines in numbers and vast contractions in their geographic ranges. Ripple et al. (10.1126/science.1241484; see the Perspective by Roberts) review the status, threats, and ecological importance of the 31 largest mammalian carnivores globally. These species are responsible for a suite of direct and indirect stabilizing effects in ecosystems. Current levels of decline are likely to result in ecologically ineffective population densities and can lead to ecosystem instability. The preservation of large carnivores can be challenging because of their need for large ranges and their potential for human conflict. However, the authors demonstrate that the preservation of large carnivores is ecologically important and that the need for conservation action is immediate, given the severity of the threats they face.


Large carnivores face serious threats and are experiencing massive declines in their populations and geographic ranges around the world. We highlight how these threats have affected the conservation status and ecological functioning of the 31 largest mammalian carnivores on Earth. Consistent with theory, empirical studies increasingly show that large carnivores have substantial effects on the structure and function of diverse ecosystems. Significant cascading trophic interactions, mediated by their prey or sympatric mesopredators, arise when some of these carnivores are extirpated from or repatriated to ecosystems. Unexpected effects of trophic cascades on various taxa and processes include changes to bird, mammal, invertebrate, and herpetofauna abundance or richness; subsidies to scavengers; altered disease dynamics; carbon sequestration; modified stream morphology; and crop damage. Promoting tolerance and coexistence with large carnivores is a crucial societal challenge that will ultimately determine the fate of Earth’s largest carnivores and all that depends upon them, including humans.

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