|Serengeti Landscape of Fear - where would you feed? On the green by the river where predators hide? In the bare bits on the plain with no grass left but a good view? Or risk the woodlands somewhere in between?|
|Lions are often in thickets (N. Serengeti)|
|But sometimes on kopjes... S. Serengeti|
|where you might also find a cheetah! N. Serengeti|
So what? These patterns are so obvious, we don't really think about them, or think they have an important part to play in very much - but we'd be wrong. In places where top predators have been removed, we rapidly see changes in the behaviour of herbivores and, soon after, we'll see changes in vegetation. Perhaps nowhere more famously than in Yellowstone National Park in the US (described here) - when wolves were eliminated elk and bison were released from their major predator and the populations changed - they didn't change in numbers very much, becausee like Serengeti's wildebeest and zebras (and, of coruse, elephants and the rest of the mega-herbivore group) they're limited by bottom-up processes of food availability, not top-down processes like predation. But they changed in behaviour, spending much less time looking around for predators and not moving around very far from their favoured willow patches. Which mean that after 50 years of no wolf predation, those patches of willows were in a bad way - it looked possible this form of riverine vegetation would vanish forever. Until 1994, when wolves were reintroduced. Within a matter of months the female elk and bison were spending significanty more time looking around, avoided open areas and only stayed in one place for a little period before moving on. And, in time, the riverine areas started to regenerate. We'd witnessed a 'trophic cascade' - removal of a top predator had had a massive impact on vegetation and landscape, the impacts 'cascading' down from top predator through the herbivore to the basal layer.
|Leopards like riverine too, C. Serengeti|
|And lions often hunt by rivers and small ridges, Tarangire|
|These Fringe-eared Oryx have spotted something from their vantage in the Tarangie plains|
Of course, things are complex for a herbivore - you can't simply decide never to forage in a wooded area because you might get eaten, because maybe half-way through the dry season you'll have eaten all the grass on the plains, and all that's left is in those scary woods. So you can either starve to a certain death in the plains, or head into the woods and risk predation, but at least stand a chance of avoiding starvation. Animals must constantly be assessing and weighing up the costs and benefits of foraging in high reward (grass under legumes like Vachellia is often of higher nutrient content than elsewhere) but risky areas, versus the safer but less beneficial areas on the plains. Not only will seasons make these decisions change, but so too will the details vary during the day - it's far more important to be in the plains at night than it is during the day, resulting in a evening movement of animals out of woods and onto plains - woodland edges are a great place to be at sunset!
|Tarangire Wildebeest treck from the woodlands to the plains every evening|
|Spotting predators on Serengeti's short-grass plains is easy - no fear here!|