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Can an herbivore affect where a top predator kills its prey by modifying woody vegetation structure?

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In large mammal communities, little is known about modification of interspecific interactions through habitat structure changes. We assessed the effects of African elephants (Loxodonta africana) on features of woody habitat structure that can affect predator–prey interactions. We then explored how this can influence where African lions (Panthera leo) kill their prey. Indeed, lions are stalk-and-ambush predators and habitat structure and concealment opportunities are assumed to influence their hunting success. During 2 years, in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, kill sites (n = 167) of GPS-collared lions were characterized (visibility distance for large mammals, distance to a potential ambush site and presence of elephant impacts). We compared characteristics of lion kill sites with characteristics of random sites (1) at a large scale (i.e. in areas intensively used by lions, n = 418) and (2) at the microhabitat scale (i.e. in the direct surrounding available habitat, < 150 m, n = 167). Elephant-impacted sites had a slightly higher visibility and a longer distance to a potential ambush site than non-impacted sites, but these relationships were characterized by a high variability. At large scale, kill sites were characterized by higher levels of elephant impacts compared to random sites. At microhabitat scale, compared to the direct nearby available habitat, kill sites were characterized by a reduced distance to a potential ambush site. We suggest a conceptual framework whereby the relative importance of habitat features and prey abundance could change upon the scale considered.

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The Zimbabwe Research Council and the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority are kindly acknowledged for providing the opportunity to carry out this research. We sincerely thank Lowani Mpofu, Trust Dube and Gladys Kazembe for their great help with the fieldwork. We thank Craig Tambling, Marion Cordonnier and Simon Chamaillé-Jammes and an anonymous reviewer for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this manuscript. The Robertson Foundation, the Recanati-Kaplan Foundation, a CV Starr Scholarship and a grant from the French “Ministère de la recherché” through the “Ecole Doctorale E2M2” of “Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1” funded this research. This collaborative work was facilitated by an International Program for Scientific Cooperation (PICS) grant from the CNRS.

Author information

The first and second author contributed equally to this paper. NF carried out the statistical analyses and drafted the manuscript. MMM collected field data and drafted the manuscript. MV conceived and designed the study, coordinated the study, and critically revised the manuscript. AJL designed the study, coordinated field data collection and critically revised the manuscript. SD helped with the statistical analyses, the interpretation of the results and revised the manuscript. HF and DWM helped coordinate the study, interpret the results and revised the manuscript.

Correspondence to Nicolas Ferry.

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Communicated by Mathew Samuel Crowther.

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Ferry, N., Mbizah, M.M., Loveridge, A.J. et al. Can an herbivore affect where a top predator kills its prey by modifying woody vegetation structure?. Oecologia (2020).

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  • Ecosystem engineer
  • Indirect effects
  • Apex predator
  • Megaherbivores
  • Predator–prey relationships