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Proc Biol Sci. 2015 Jul 7;282(1810). pii: 20150124. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2015.0124.

Relaxation of risk-sensitive behaviour of prey following disease-induced decline of an apex predator, the Tasmanian devil.

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School of Biological Sciences, University of Tasmania, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia 7001 School of Biosciences, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia 3010
Griffith School of Environment, Griffith University, Nathan, Queensland, Australia 4111.
School of Biological Sciences, University of Tasmania, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia 7001.
Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia 7001.


Apex predators structure ecosystems through lethal and non-lethal interactions with prey, and their global decline is causing loss of ecological function. Behavioural changes of prey are some of the most rapid responses to predator decline and may act as an early indicator of cascading effects. The Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii), an apex predator, is undergoing progressive and extensive population decline, of more than 90% in long-diseased areas, caused by a novel disease. Time since local disease outbreak correlates with devil population declines and thus predation risk. We used hair traps and giving-up densities (GUDs) in food patches to test whether a major prey species of devils, the arboreal common brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula), is responsive to the changing risk of predation when they forage on the ground. Possums spend more time on the ground, discover food patches faster and forage more to a lower GUD with increasing years since disease outbreak and greater devil population decline. Loss of top-down effects of devils with respect to predation risk was evident at 90% devil population decline, with possum behaviour indistinguishable from a devil-free island. Alternative predators may help to maintain risk-sensitive anti-predator behaviours in possums while devil populations remain low.


Tasmanian devil; anti-predator behaviour; apex predator loss; brushtail possum; devil facial tumour disease; giving-up densities

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