The effect of individual variability and larger carnivores on the functional response of cheetahs

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Virginia Tech

Functional response is the framework thorough which we can quantify how predator hunting behaviors such as rate of successful attack and time spent handling prey interact with prey density to determine the rate at which prey are killed. Cheetahs are mesopredators and their behavior can be shaped by the need to avoid larger predators while hunting relatively large bodied and mobile prey. I used data from 34 years of observed cheetah hunts in Serengeti National Park in Tanzania to investigate how reproductive condition, prey density, seasonality, and the proximity of larger predators affect cheetah kill rates, probability of successful attack, and time spent handling prey. Mothers with cubs had an asymptotic Type II functional response where kill rate increased but eventually leveled-off at high prey densities, while cheetahs without cubs had a dome shaped Type IV functional response where kill rates actually declined at high prey density. Probability of successful attack on prey was higher for mothers with cubs, and increased slightly with prey density. Mothers with cubs had different prey handling behavior than other cheetahs. Cheetah mothers spend longer at kills then other cheetahs despite the risk that the carcass can attract lions and hyenas that could steal the carcass and potentially kill her cubs. Mothers must make sure their cubs have sufficient time at the carcass to eat their fill, thus they minimize risk from larger predators by being vigilant. In contrast, cheetahs without cubs are unconcerned with cub predation and can eat quickly to minimize the risk of kleptoparasitism. My results show how the pressures of cub rearing and coexisting with larger carnivores differentially shape the hunting behavior of cheetahs, and suggest that intensity of mesopredator suppression may depend on individual variability. This is the first time the functional response for a large mesopredator, has been quantified and the first time a dome shaped response has been recorded in a mammal. My work shows the value in accounting for individual variability in functional response and how linking of carnivore hunting behavior to multiple species interactions advances our understanding of how classical ecological theory applies to wild ecosystems.

Carnivores, predator-prey interactions, mesopredators, functional response, attack rate, handling time, mesopredator suppression, individual variability