Diet of the feral cat, Felis catus, in central Australian grassland habitats during population cycles of its principal prey

Abstract

Foraging theory predicts that animals should forage so as to maximize their net rate of energy gain or to minimize their risk of starvation. In situations where prey numbers fluctuate dramatically, theory predicts further that foragers will eat ‘optimal’ prey when it is abundant but expand their diet to include other prey types when the optimal prey is scarce; this is the alternative prey hypothesis. Here, we test this prediction by analyzing the diet of a mammalian predator, the feral house cat Felis catus, during periods of scarcity and abundance of the long-haired rat Rattus villosissimus. We also investigate whether the body condition of feral cats differs during different stages of the prey population cycle. Feral cats were shot during culling operations in semi-arid grassland habitats in central Queensland, Australia, and the stomach contents later identified. We found that the body condition of feral cats did not differ between phases of the prey population cycle, but the diets of cats culled when long-haired rats were scarce were significantly more diverse than when this rodent was abundant. Rats comprised about 80 % of cats’ diet by volume and frequency of occurrence when they were present, whereas birds, reptiles and invertebrates comprised the bulk of the diet when rats were not available. We conclude that, whilst feral cats are often thought to be specialist predators, they may be better considered as facultative specialists that will shift their diet in predictable ways in response to changes in the abundance of primary prey.

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Acknowledgments

We are very grateful to Alicia Whittington, Shane Hume, Jason Parviainen, and other staff of Queensland National Parks at Longreach for providing the cat specimens for this work. We also thank Bobby Tamayo and Chin-Liang Beh for assistance in retrieving and storing cat specimens, and Glenn Shea and Matthew Greenlees for expert assistance with the identification of stomach contents. We are also most grateful to the L. and M. Cowan Foundation for providing funds to assist this research.

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Correspondence to Stephanie J. S. Yip.

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Communicated by: Krzysztof Schmidt

Appendix

Appendix

Table 2 Prey items identified from 152 feral cat stomach samples from Australian semi-arid grassland habitats during a period when boom conditions prevailed
Table 3 Prey items identified from 35 feral cat stomach samples from Australian semi-arid grassland habitats during a period when bust conditions prevailed

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Yip, S.J.S., Rich, M. & Dickman, C.R. Diet of the feral cat, Felis catus, in central Australian grassland habitats during population cycles of its principal prey. Mamm Res 60, 39–50 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13364-014-0208-7

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Keywords

  • Alternative prey hypothesis
  • Australia
  • Body condition
  • Foraging theory
  • Predator