Fear itself can help restore ecosystems

Large carnivore conservation valuable given the significant ‘ecosystem service’ the fear of them provides.

SIDNEY, BC – Cougars, wolves and other large carnivores are imposing predators that strike fear into other animals. A new study by Raincoast Conservation Foundation scientists and collaborators demonstrates that the fear these top predators inspire can have cascading effects down the food chain critical to maintaining healthy ecosystems. This makes large carnivore conservation all the more valuable given the significant ‘ecosystem service’ the fear of them provides.

These findings from a team led by Raincoast ecologist and University of Victoria PhD Student Justin Suraci and Western University’s Professor Liana Zanette, working with Simon Fraser University’s Professor Larry Dill, were published today in Nature Communications.

Suraci, Zanette, and their colleagues, experimentally demonstrated for the first time that the fear of large carnivores is itself powerful enough to have effects all down the food chain and that restoring this fear can reverse the adverse impacts resulting from the ever-increasing global loss of large carnivores. “These results have critically important implications for conservation, wildlife management and public policy”, explains Suraci. “We have now experimentally verified that, by instilling fear, the very existence of large carnivores on the landscape – in and of itself – provides an essential ‘ecosystem service’, and failing to consider fear risks dramatically underestimating the role large carnivores play in structuring ecosystems”.

Humans fear large carnivores because they pose real and perceived threats to human life and livelihoods, which is why predator reintroduction programs like returning wolves to Yellowstone National Park, are so controversial. Proponents argue that the presence of large carnivores creates a ‘landscape of fear’ necessary to keep their prey, like deer, coyotes and raccoons, from eating everything in sight, but opponents counter that the evidence for this is weak. This ground-breaking study definitively resolves this debate.

Raccoons on British Columbia’s Gulf Islands are devastating songbirds on land and intertidal crabs and fish in the ocean. The researchers suspected this is largely due to the raccoons having little to fear, since most of the large carnivores that prey on raccoons (cougars and wolves) were eliminated a century ago.

To experimentally manipulate fear, the team played the threatening sounds of large carnivores (or nonthreatening sounds) from speakers along extensive lengths of shoreline for months at a time. The fear inspired by simply hearing the sounds of large carnivores so dramatically reduced the time raccoons spent feeding that it reversed their impacts on their prey, and had cascading effects all through the ecosystem.

An infographic, demonstrating the landscape of fear, shows how fear of large carnivores affects entire food web.

High quality images, an infographic and video with full permissions are available at: http://tinyurl.com/zolyr9h

Press contacts

Lead study author: Justin Suraci, justin [dot] suraci [at] gmail [dot] com
Research team lead: Prof. Liana Zanette, lzanette [at] uwo [dot] ca
Research team lead: Dr. Michael Clinchy, mclinchy [at] uwo [dot] ca
Raincoast Conservation Foundation Science Director: Dr. Chris Darimont, darimont [at] uvic [dot] ca

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Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.