Experimental evidence for the population-dynamic mechanisms underlying extinction cascades of carnivores

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Abstract

Species extinction rates due to human activities are high [1-3], and initial extinctions can trigger cascades of secondary extinctions, leading to further erosion of biodiversity [4]. A potential major mechanism for secondary extinction cascades is provided by the long-standing theory that the diversity of consumer species is maintained due to the positive indirect effects that these species have on each other by reducing competition among their respective resource species [5-7]. This means that the loss of one carnivore species could lead to competitive exclusion at the prey trophic level, leading to extinctions of further carnivore species. Evidence for these effects is difficult to obtain due to many confounding factors in natural systems, but extinction cascades that could be due to this mechanism have been demonstrated in simplified laboratory microcosms [8]. We established complex insect food webs in replicated field mesocosms and found that the overharvesting of one parasitoid wasp species caused increased extinction rates of other parasitoid species, compared to controls, but only when we manipulated the spatial distribution of herbivore species such that the potential for interspecific competition at this level was high. This provides clear evidence for horizontal extinction cascades at high trophic levels due to the proposed mechanism. Our results demonstrate that the loss of carnivores can have widespread effects on other species at the same trophic level due to indirect population-dynamic effects that are rarely considered in this context.

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Sanders, D., Kehoe, R., & Frank Van Veen, F. (2015). Experimental evidence for the population-dynamic mechanisms underlying extinction cascades of carnivores. Current Biology, 25(23), 3106–3109. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2015.10.017

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