Seasonal patterns of predation for gray wolves in the multi-prey system of Yellowstone National Park

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For large predators living in seasonal environments, patterns of predation are likely to vary among seasons because of related changes in prey vulnerability. Variation in prey vulnerability underlies the influence of predators on prey populations and the response of predators to seasonal variation in rates of biomass acquisition. Despite its importance, seasonal variation in predation is poorly understood. We assessed seasonal variation in prey composition and kill rate for wolves Canis lupus living on the Northern Range (NR) of Yellowstone National Park. Our assessment was based on data collected over 14 winters (1995-2009) and five spring-summers between 2004 and 2009. The species composition of wolf-killed prey and the age and sex composition of wolf-killed elk Cervus elaphus (the primary prey for NR wolves) varied among seasons. One's understanding of predation depends critically on the metric used to quantify kill rate. For example, kill rate was greatest in summer when quantified as the number of ungulates acquired per wolf per day, and least during summer when kill rate was quantified as the biomass acquired per wolf per day. This finding contradicts previous research that suggests that rates of biomass acquisition for large terrestrial carnivores tend not to vary among seasons. Kill rates were not well correlated among seasons. For example, knowing that early-winter kill rate is higher than average (compared with other early winters) provides little basis for anticipating whether kill rates a few months later during late winter will be higher or lower than average (compared with other late winters). This observation indicates how observing, for example, higher-than-average kill rates throughout any particular season is an unreliable basis for inferring that the year-round average kill rate would be higher than average. Our work shows how a large carnivore living in a seasonal environment displays marked seasonal variation in predation because of changes in prey vulnerability. Patterns of wolf predation were influenced by the nutritional condition of adult elk and the availability of smaller prey (i.e. elk calves, deer). We discuss how these patterns affect our overall understanding of predator and prey population dynamics. © 2012 The Authors. Journal of Animal Ecology © 2012 British Ecological Society.

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Journal of Animal Ecology