Thursday, 27 October 2011

The landscape of fear

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
It might sound like the sort of novel you's find abandoned at a camp by passing visitors, but understanding what ecologists mean by the 'landscape of fear' - how predators have impacts on the ecology of a savannah that go well beyond their direct predation events - is such an important concept that I'm going to break my usual rule of not talking about the big five! Actually, understanding the concept is simple - it's about looking at a landscape and working out where you'd be (most) scared to be walking. Long grass? Yup, scary. Thick riverine vegetation? Not for me! Nich bushy kopjie? I'll give it a miss, thanks. You get the idea - any place you might think about looking for predators whilst on a game drive, is going to be a scary place for herbivores too. And it's not simply a function of the numbers of predators that are present, but how efficiently they might be able to hunt within that habitat - I'd be much happier walking a short grass plain with a high density of lions than I would walking through some tangled thickets with a much lower density of lions. (Obviously I'm also a bit warier of buffalo and elephant than most herbivores have to be, but if you've done a few walking safaris you'll have the idea anyway.)

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
The same processes are in operation on our east african savannahs all the time. Lions are far, far more efficient predators in areas where they can conceal themselves (in bushes, around kopjies, along even small river lines and shelves) than in the open - and as we know they plan their hunts accordingly. Similarly, leopards are best looked for around kopjies and riverine forests, where they're both able to avoid lions and can hunt sucessfully. Even cheetahs are often around kopjies to get a good view. So these are scary places for animals and, as we've seen so often before, if you start altering grazing pressure (one of the big 4 processes in the savannah), you'll see a change in the vegetation - riverine forests get a headstart if there's a big predator population living in them, scaring all the wildlife out! There's even the possibility that this processes becomes a positive feedback - as bush increases, so does predation success, making bushes even scarier, leaving fewer herbivores to keep the bushes back, meaning the bushes spread further, etc. And on the other hand, grazers like to graze areas where they have a good view - short grass - but if there are enough of them, their very grazing ensures the grass stays short, reinforcing the benefits.

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!
Anyway, once you've got the idea of trophic cascades and the landscape of fear, you'll start seeing how it works all the time, and I hope I've given you enough here to start thinking about at least. (You'll get a much more in-depth and very readable discussion of tropic cascades and the landscape of fear in this nice article here.)


  1. That is so true! The relationship between preditor and prey is an amazing subject! I have been to yellow stone and the ecoystem is really recovering after the reintroduction of wolves! My name is tyler and i live in colorado(U.S.A), i am 16 years and really injoy reading your blog! When i go to college i want to study ecology and and travel to biodiverse places like tanzania and other african countries! Also just saying don't worry about writing about the big 5 they are really interesting to us readers who don't know much about the ecology of the savania scrub. Well any way i really think your blog is awesome and i hope you keep writing on it!

  2. Hi Tyler, glad you like the blog, do spread the word! And good luck with the ecology career - it's tough to get into it, but worth it in the end. Get as much experience as you can whilst you're still free to volunteer in places and (I hope) someone else keeps feeding you! Colorado has some fantastic wildlife sites too.

  3. Thanks for the advise! What volunteer work would you suggest for me? Until this year i was studying entomology for 4H and i have applied for a job at he DOW(Division of Wildlife) but was declined because you have to be 18 to work there and i feel as if the opportunities to volunteer are limited. What would you Suggest i do? Well any way it is beautiful in Colorado right now! it snowed two days ago but the snow didn't stick and the leaves of the deciduous trees are changing colors! The mountains are covered in snow and the elk and mule deer are coming out of the mountains and the rut is on! While passerines and waterfowl flock to our lakes. This of course brings large amounts of hunters to our town. What are your views on hunting? Soon it will be winter and there will be 4-5 feet of snow on the ground and i will go skiing! Well anyway thanks for the advise and i will keep my eyes open for volunteer opportunities!

  4. Find a nature reserve near you where you can help - they're always looking for people to do things both inside and outside. I don't know the US well enough to suggest an organisation near you, I'm afraid, but there's bound to be. In the UK it was always cutting down invasive species... But great to meet people and learn more.

  5. The thing with the US is that there are a lot of rules about under age people(people under 18 years old) getting jobs. I also live in a small town in the middle of the rocky mountains. So the opportunities are limited. The most i can really do is just go into the woods and take notes on what i see. And then school starts and i have homework and schoolwork to do. To make matters even harder I'm focusing on going to a good college and so i do a lot of extracurricular activities like honors English and student council, and i also play the violin. I also do lots of sports, I just got done with running cross-country and in a week i start swim-team and in the spring i run track, plus i have to run year round to stay in shape for my sports! This makes my situation even harder i want to get a scholarship in science and in running and I'm just so busy. i could in the summer volunteer for the DOW but not as a job just as volunteer work and do things like help the cut back on invasive species like thistles, clover, and dandelions. I could, also, help them find places to relocate animals that people want destroyed. Well any way thanks for the idea!