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Behavioral responses to ecological disturbances influence predation risk for a capital breeder

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Predation-risk and ecological disturbance regimes can both influence behavioral decisions by prey, yet few studies have simultaneously considered responses to these ecological pressures. Elucidating relationships between predation risk and the costs and benefits associated with multiple natural disturbances can contribute to a better understanding of how prey adapt to varied predator and disturbance regimes.


We quantified spatial variation in predation risk and resource selection strategies of female white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) with different fate outcomes during the fawning season across a landscape with poor-quality, heterogeneous food resources.


We quantified resource selection relative to ecological disturbance regimes and vulnerability to Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi) predation and linked these behavioral patterns to mortality outcomes.


We found that female deer that were killed by panthers selected flooded areas that contained higher quality forage, but these areas also conferred higher relative predation risk. Females that survived the fawning season selected frequently and recently burned areas that had both high-quality forage and lower panther predation risk.


The interplay between predation risk and ecological disturbance regimes appeared to drive behavioral strategies by deer. Females exhibited different strategies relative to the forage-predation risk trade-off, which led to different fitness outcomes. These behavioral strategies may affect maternal care, adding additional complexity to tradeoffs involving adult survival and recruitment.

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Data availability

Data used in this study are available via the Dryad Digital Repository.


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We would like to thank Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, National Parks Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for their direct and in-kind funding and support. We would like to thank the many field technicians and graduate students that helped collect field data, notably B. Kelly, G. Aubin, K. Engebretsen, H. Ellsworth, and L. Stiffler. We would like to thank Robert Sobczak, Hydrologist with National Park Service, for his help and guidance with the DBHYDRO gage conversions based on his field estimates. We would also like to thank J.F. Benson for his insight on conceptual framing, contributions to editing, and productive conversations about this topic. The findings and conclusions in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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EPG, MJC, RBC, MLC and KVM were fundamental in designing and implementing the telemetry study of south Florida deer; DAC was fundamental in deer capture and data collection in the field; MJC contributed to the conceptual framework; HNA compiled data, completed the statistical modelling, created all figures and wrote several drafts of the manuscript. All authors contributed substantially to revisions.

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Correspondence to H. N. Abernathy.

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Abernathy, H.N., Chandler, R.B., Crawford, D.A. et al. Behavioral responses to ecological disturbances influence predation risk for a capital breeder. Landsc Ecol 37, 233–248 (2022).

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