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Ecology of Fear: Researchers Discover 'Super Predators' More Frightening Than Bears, Wolves

Aug 02, 2016 04:20 AM EDT
European badger
European Badger (Meles meles) photographed at the British Wildlife Centre Eastbourne Road.
(Photo : Flickr/Creative Commons/Big-Ashb)

A new study reveals that smaller mesocarnivores now fear humans more than their actual predators, making humans the new "super predator."

According to the study published in the journal Behavioral Ecology, their fear of humans may have been because over the past years, humans had been hunting more animals than their own predators.

Researchers from Western University in London Ontario and biologist David Macdonald from the University of Oxford's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) conducted an experiment to find out how European badgers would react to the sounds that they hear within their ecosystem. The group did this by playing recordings that include sounds of bears, wolves, dogs and chattering humans.

Results showed that badgers were most terrified with the sound of humans talking rather than the sound of growling bears, wolves and dogs.

In the animal world, fear is translated to large carnivores/predators, and without the fear of predators, the ecosystem will lose its balance. For example, one of the roles of predators is to keep smaller animals from eating everything that they see within their site. Without their fear of predators, the small animals will eat everything and the landscape will be lost.

A separate study published in 2015 showed that simply hearing barks of wild dogs stopped wild raccoons from foraging along a shoreline of an island. As a result, the populations of crabs and fish, which the raccoons feed on, were able to grow.

Also, the sound of a predator may elevate the levels of anxiety of smaller animals, which in turn would distract them from procreating.

"Our previous research has shown that the fear large carnivores inspire can itself shape ecosystems. These new results indicate that the fear of humans, being greater, likely has even greater impacts on the environment, meaning humans may be distorting ecosystem processes even more than previously imagined," explains Zanette, a wildlife ecologist who worked on the study, in a press release.

"These results have important implications for conservation, wildlife management and public policy," she added.

The study emphasized that fear of humans is not a good substitute to fear of the actual predators as humans cannot be expected to fulfill the same ecosystem function.

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