Trapping Conservation and Self-Reliance News

Fox and Yotes: Forest and snow rather than food or foe limit the distribution of a generalist mesocarnivore in winter
Nov 21, 2023 21:17 ET


Investigating species responses to trophic interactions and abiotic factors is crucial to better understanding their ecology and creating effective management strategies. In carnivore communities, smaller species are often regulated by larger ones via top-down interference competition. Smaller subordinate carnivores can also be regulated by bottom-up and abiotic factors, such as the availability of important prey, habitat features, and climatic conditions. However, substantial ambiguity remains regarding the relative roles these complex factors play in shaping subordinate carnivore populations, especially during winter. To investigate this issue, we conducted a large-scale camera-trapping study (n = 197 sites distributed across a ~60,000 km2 landscape) using a balanced study design that sampled a gradient of forest disturbance and climatic conditions. We used dynamic occupancy modeling to examine the influences of top-down (interference competition), bottom-up (prey and habitat), and abiotic (climate) factors on a widespread, generalist subordinate carnivore, the red fox (Vulpes vulpes), in Maine, USA. Across three winters, we collected 107 red fox and 185 coyote (Canis latrans) daily detections, and 3875 snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus) detections. We found evidence for the top-down effects of coyotes on red fox detection probability and site colonization. However, contrary to theoretical expectations, the association between coyotes and red foxes was positive rather than negative. Snowshoe hares had a positive association with local extinction by red foxes, which also contrasts with prevailing theory given that snowshoe hares are an important winter prey of red foxes in this ecosystem. The intensity of forest disturbance and the proportion of conifer forest had negative effects on red fox occurrence and detection probability, while snow depth had a strong negative effect on site colonization. Together, these results suggest red foxes are limited more by abiotic and bottom-up factors related to habitat than by the top-down interference competition or primary prey availability in winter. Our study supports recent findings that bottom-up factors may shape carnivore distributions during less productive times of year. Our work also highlights how caution is needed when extrapolating previous results from summer studies to winter, as the role of top-down and bottom-up factors may change seasonally.

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