, Volume 62, Issue 10, pp 1551-1558
Date: 14 May 2008

Rats on the run: removal of alien terrestrial predators affects bush rat behaviour

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Abstract

Predators can strongly influence the microhabitat use and foraging behaviour of prey. In a large-scale replicated field experiment in East Gippsland, Australia, we tested the effects of reduced alien red fox (Vulpes vulpes) and alien wild dog (Canis lupus familiaris) abundance (treatment) on native bush rat (Rattus fuscipes) behaviour. Bush rats are exposed to two main guilds of predators, namely mammalian carnivores and birds of prey. Tracking rat movements using the spool-and-line technique revealed that, in treatment sites, rats used ground cover, which provides shelter from predators, less often than at unmanipulated fox and wild dog abundance (non-treatment sites). In treatment sites, rats more frequently moved on logs where they would have been exposed to hunting foxes and dogs than in non-treatment sites. Furthermore, in treatments, rats showed a preference for understorey but not in non-treatments. Hence, bush rats adapted their behaviour to removal of alien terrestrial predators. Giving-up densities (GUDs) indicated no treatment effects on the marginal feeding rate of bush rats. Interestingly, GUDs were higher in open patches than in sheltered patches, suggesting higher perceived predation risk of bush rats during foraging at low versus high cover. The lack of treatment effects on GUDs but the clear response of bush rats to cover may be explained by the impact of predators other than foxes and wild dogs.

Communicated by P. Banks