Theoretical ecology is largely founded on the principle of mass action, in which uncoordinated populations of predators and prey move in a random and well-mixed fashion across a featureless landscape. The conceptual core of this body of theory is the func- tional response, predicting the rate of prey consumption by indi- vidual predators as a function of predator and/or prey densities1–5 . This assumption is seriously violated in many ecosystems in which predators and/or prey form social groups. Here we develop a new set of group-dependent functional responses to consider the ecological implications of sociality and apply the model to the Serengeti ecosystem. All of the prey species typically captured by Serengeti lions (Panthera leo) are gregarious, exhibiting nonlinear relationships between prey-group density and population density. The observed patterns of group formation profoundly reduce food intake rates below the levels expected under random mixing, having as strong an impact on intake rates as the seasonal migra- tory behaviour of the herbivores. A dynamical system model parameterized for the Serengeti ecosystem (using wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus) as a well-studied example) shows that grouping strongly stabilizes interactions between lions and wildebeest. Our results suggest that social groups rather than indi- viduals are the basic building blocks around which predator–prey interactions should be modelled and that group formation may provide the underlying stability of many ecosystems.
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