Public Release:  Reducing numbers of 1 carnivore species indirectly leads to extinction of others

A team from the University of Exeter and the University of Bern has found that reducing the numbers of 1 species of carnivore can lead to the extinction of others

University of Exeter

Previous studies have shown that carnivores can have indirect positive effects on each other, which means that when one species is lost, others could soon follow. A team from the University of Exeter and the University of Bern has now found that reducing the numbers of one species of carnivore can lead to the extinction of others.

Published online today (28 February 2013) in the journal Ecology Letters, the study shows that simply reducing the population size of one carnivore can indirectly cause another similar species to become extinct. The research shows that changes in population size, as well as extinction, can create ripple effects across sensitive food webs with far-reaching consequences for many other animals.

The research shows that species could suffer just as much from harm to another species as from being under direct threat themselves. This adds weight to growing evidence that a 'single species' approach to conservation, for example in fisheries management, is misguided. Instead the focus needs to be holistic, encompassing species across an entire ecosystem.

The researchers assembled experimental ecosystems with three species of parasitic wasps, along with the three types of aphids on which each wasp exclusively feeds. They set up four sets of tanks each containing the three aphid and three wasp species and allowed the populations to establish for eight weeks. Over the next 14 weeks (seven insect generations) the researchers removed a proportion of the wasps from three of the sets of tanks every day - one species from each set. The fourth set had no wasps removed.

The team found that the partial removal of one wasp species led indirectly to the extinction of other wasp species. In the absence of one wasp species, the aphid it preyed upon grew in numbers. All three species of aphid feed on the same plant so increased competition for food led to changes in sizes of the aphid populations. However no aphid species went extinct and so the indirect extinctions of the wasps were not the result of extinction of their prey. Rather, it is likely that the wasps that went extinct had difficulty searching for suitable prey among large numbers of unsuitable ones.

Lead researcher Dr Frank van Veen of the University of Exeter's Centre for Ecology and Conservation said: "We have shown that the complex ripple effect of a change in population size across food webs is more sensitive than previously thought and that a reduction in the numbers of one carnivore can lead to the extinction of another carnivore species. We also found evidence that the initial indirect extinction can itself trigger further ones, potentially leading to a cascade of extinctions, like dominoes toppling over."

"The insect system is handy for experimentation but the same principles apply to any ecosystem, from mammals in the Serengeti to the fish in our seas. It clearly shows that we should have an ecosystem-based approach to conservation and to the management of fish stocks and other natural resources."

The research team has recently been awarded a £470K grant by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to extend this research at a larger scale.

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About the University of Exeter

The Sunday Times University of the Year 2012-13, the University of Exeter is a Russell Group university and in the top one percent of institutions globally. It combines world-class research with very high levels of student satisfaction. Exeter has over 18,000 students and is ranked 7th in The Sunday Times University Guide, 10th in the UK in The Times Good University Guide 2012 and 10th in the Guardian University Guide. In the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) 90% of the University's research was rated as being at internationally recognised levels and 16 of its 31 subjects are ranked in the top 10, with 27 subjects ranked in the top 20.

The University has invested strategically to deliver more than £350 million worth of new facilities across its campuses for 2012, including landmark new student services centres - the Forum in Exeter and The Exchange in Cornwall - and world-class new facilities for Biosciences, the Business School and the Environment and Sustainability Institute. www.exeter.ac.uk

For further information:

Jo Bowler
University of Exeter Press Office
+44 (0)1392 722062
j.bowler@exeter.ac.uk

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