Photo by Karli Gregson
Prey Inquiry: Why Care About Prey Social Behavior?
Gaze into the eyes of a deer, and what you see will depend on your attitude about Bambi. Behavior of the wild game we hunt, teaches us how the mind of prey species differs from our own, encouraging us to learn to see our world through their eyes. We can better understand our domestic livestock by thinking like their wild ancestors who were prey species (1).
For the most part, the general public is unaware of the similarities and differences between humans and other prey, or between the mentality of prey and their predators. The Nature's Partners: predators prey & you curriculum is designed to educate people about:
The Nature's Partners curriculum is just one step toward increasing the public's awareness and sense of responsibility. We have purposely chosen to focus on just two of the many predators and prey as a means for teaching basic concepts about behavior. Wolves were chosen because many of our families have first hand experience with dogs, the domesticated form of wolves. Elk were chosen because many outdoor enthusiasts have first hand experience with deer, plus the scientific information on elk is cutting-edge. On the left menu bar, we provide sources to background information on several related deer species. We encourage you to research other predators and prey on the Internet, in your local library, and through your county office of the Cooperative Extension Service.
Ungulates, both domestic livestock and native deer, feed on the plants that grow in diverse habitats across America, from the frozen tundra to the sweltering deserts. Worldwide, 322 ungulate species provide key ecosystem services as herbivores, including the odd-toed (Perissodactyla) and the even-toed (Cetartiodactyla) hoofed mammals (2). The odd-toed species include 8 horses, 4 tapirs and 5 rhinoceroses. The even-toed species include 143 cattle and antelope, 51 deer, 19 pigs, 4 camels and llamas, 2 hippopotamuses, 2 giraffes, and 84 whales and dolphins. The services provided by native herbivores further contribute to the growth and distribution of many native plants.
For the U.S. Department of Agriculture, predators are not the only species of concern to Wildlife Services, which is the federal agency responsible for protecting people, agriculture and wildlife(3). The importance of these issues to society is reflected in the budget of $39 million allocated to Wildlife Services in 2008. Due to the high visibility of news releases about wildlife damage to crops, much of the public is not aware of the positive influences of deer on the dynamic balance within ecosystems.
Thanks to technological innovations, researchers are now learning that behaviors of predators and prey may have more indirect influence on the food web than the actual direct act of predation(3). In the past, historical evidence led scientists to reject the overly simplistic hypothesis that predators always keep prey numbers in balance with their food resources. Recent evidence suggests that the relations among predators, prey and plants are more far-reaching, and more fascinating. For example, the absence of wolves from the Yellowstone ecosystem has been correlated with changes in growth of willows in the rivers where moose browsed and in aspen patches where elk grazed. Changes in the willow bushes may have influenced nesting populations of migratory songbirds.
In many ecosystems where large predators were exterminated to protect livestock, human hunters have taken over the role of keystone predator at the top of the trophic pyramid. A recent study published by the National Academy of Sciences (4) examines evidence that predation by humans is correlated with more rapid changes in the morphology and reproduction of prey in 40 ecosystems that included humans (compared to 20 control ecosystems where humans were excluded). The implications of this form of artificial selection on the gene pools of wild populations remains an intriguing puzzle for the next generation of budding young scientists.
Footnotes and further reading:
(1) "Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior, By Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson, published by Harcourt, Inc. View source details
(3) Publications of the National Wildlife Research Center View list
(4 ) "Human predators outpace other agents of trait change in the wild", By Chris T. Darimont et. al.. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. January 20, 2009 vol. 106 no. 3 pages 952-954 View report
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