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Nelson Mandela University (2022)

Refining predator-prey preference at the prey demographic level for cheetah and lion

Annear, Eleesha

Titre : Refining predator-prey preference at the prey demographic level for cheetah and lion

Auteur : Annear, Eleesha

Université de soutenance : Nelson Mandela University

Grade : Master of Science (MS) 2022

Traditional prey preference models estimate prey preference using a coarse species-specific body mass of three-quarters of the mean adult female body mass. This is widely assumed to estimate the average mass across prey populations, accounting for neonates, juveniles, sub-adults, and adults. However, this approach negates the models’ ability to predict demography-specific prey preferences, thus reducing our ability to predict the impacts of predation on prey populations. The objectives of this study were to 1) refine the prey selection models, using lion Panthera leo and cheetah Acinonyx jubatus as model species, by incorporating prey demographic classes and season and, 2) determine the influence of seasonal variability in availability of these prey demographic classes on cheetah reproduction. Lions preferentially killed adults of larger species (e.g., wildebeest, waterbuck, and zebra) irrespective of the season, as predicted by optimal foraging theory. Sub-adult, juvenile, and neonate prey were killed by lions relative to their abundance. Cheetahs preferred juvenile prey of large species, namely kudu, zebra, and wildebeest. Season influenced cheetah preference with neonates and juveniles being preferred during the wet season and adults of smaller species, and juveniles of larger species being preferred during the dry season. Thus, results support the alternative demographic class hypothesis. Furthermore, the availability of neonate and juvenile prey drives cheetah reproduction patterns with conception and cub independence coinciding with the peak availability of easy-to-catch neonates. Lactation coincided with the high availability of relatively larger juveniles to ensure that females obtain enough resources to sustain the most energetically costly reproductive phase. In addition, I suggest cheetah may be particularly vulnerable to disturbances that impact on prey reproduction (e.g., drought, fire, and flood), given their reliance on neonate and juvenile prey. My findings highlight that estimating species-level prey preference using a coarse species-specific body mass masks the level of prey use and potential preferences for the different prey demographic classes. The use of some prey species may be largely confined to juveniles by smaller predators, meaning that prey availability would vary seasonally, may influence reproductive patterns, and carrying capacity models would need to be revised in terms of the available demographic-specific prey biomass.

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