Unexpected Effects of Predators Upon Their Prey: The Case of the American Alligator
Indirect trophic effects play important roles in ecosystem dynamics and can at times oppose and dominate the action of direct feeding linkages. Each predator directly exerts a negative effect upon its prey, but predators may also provide indirect benefits to their prey. In ecosystems, such benefits are effected via indirect trophic pathways that can provide a more than compensating positive influence. The ecosystem of the Big Cypress National Preserve (southwest Florida) appears to contain an unusually high number of such predators—most notably, the American alligator, Alligator mississippiensis. The trophic exchanges of carbon among the 68 principal taxa comprising the cypress wetland ecosystem have been quantified during both wet and dry seasons. The network analysis program IMPACTS identified predators that potentially have a positive influence on some of their prey. A total of 64 of these instances were recorded for the wet season and 44 for the dry. Taxa that, on balance, have positive effects upon their prey include fishes, turtles, snakes, birds, and, most significantly, alligators. The feeding habits of alligators benefit a conspicuous number (11) of their prey (invertebrates, frogs, mice, and rats). Further trophic analysis reveals that the predation by alligators on snakes and turtles accounts for most of the trophic benefits bestowed. The actions of alligators in modifying their physical environment has been cited elsewhere as contributing to the maintenance of biotic diversity. It appears that the trophic influence of this species adds further evidence to the important role it plays in the functional ecology of the cypress wetland.