Predator/prey balance at risk

Climate change could alter the relationship between predator and prey in the wild.

Rebecca Tyson, an associate professor of mathematics at UBC Okanagan, has published a study on how those relationships change – and how climate change may lead to extinctions.

With mathematical modelling, Tyson looks at the future of real ecosystems. The models can then be used in management and conservation strategies.

“Researchers watch the population of a species over time, and they’re looking for specifics. Does the population persist, does it oscillate, is it stable?” says Tyson.

There are two types of predator: generalists will eat berries, a small variety of prey animals and pretty much anything to survive. Specialists live on one food-type alone. Some predators, however, switch back and forth seasonally.

It’s these switching specialists she’s worried about.

The great horned owl requires a steady diet of snowshoe hares for survival during the winter, but can survive on a wide variety of prey in the summer. During an extended summer, great horned owls may run hares to near extinction.

This in turn puts other northern animals in danger, such as lynx, which also survive on snowshoe hares.

Tyson's research has found new behaviours between predator and prey, begging the question how longer summers will affect such relationships.

Tyson didn't expect to find the evidence, but hopes it will lead to more field studies and research on the matter.

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