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Predator Decline Is Leaving Prey in a Thorny Situation

Oct 18, 2014 10:37 PM EDT

The fact that there are less predators stalking them day and night should sound like a good news for a great many herbivores across the globe. But a new study has found that this isn't necessarily the case. With fewer large predators keeping populations in check, herbivores are over-foraging and destroying the delicate ecosystems that have kept them fed for countless years.

That's at least according to a new study recently published in the journal Science, which details how losses in large predators is indirectly driving losses in foraging vegetation. Interestingly, this is also impacting what kind of vegetation is most dominant in an area, where over-foraging can pave the way for undesired plants, such as those with thorns, to gain an ecological advantage.

"Plants have two pathways to success," study author and zoologist Adam Ford explained in a statement. "You either protect yourself from herbivores by growing large thorns, or thrive in areas that are risky to ... plant eaters."

Unfortunately, "as human activities continue to reduce populations of predators, herbivores like impala become willing to feed in areas that used to be risky - consuming more preferred vegetation and, ironically, allowing less-preferred thorny plant species to take over," he added.

The researcher determined this after observing changes occurring at an ideal model region, the Mpala Research Center in Laikipia, Kenya. Previous studies have also shown that more than three quarters of the world's 31 large carnivore species are in decline.

Interestingly, the opposite can be seen in some parts of the United States.

Nature World News has been reporting how, after a seven decade hiatus, grey wolves are again flourishing in regions like Yellowstone National Park. There, researchers have observed local flora undergoing a change where berry bushes are beginning to explode in population now that there are more large predators to keep once over-foraging elk in check.

And because of this, bears are suddenly eating more berries, which are an essential part of their omnivorous diet.

Ford says that he and his colleagues will continue to monitor model populations such as impala in Kenya to better understand these changes.

"We're only beginning to understand the linkages between carnivores, their prey, plants and people," he said.

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