1. Predation plays an integral role in many community interactions, with the number of predators and the rate at which they consume prey (i.e. their functional response) determining interaction strengths. Owing to the difficulty of directly observing predation events, attempts to determine the functional response of predators in natural systems are limited. Determining the forms that predator functional responses take in complex systems is important in advancing understanding of community interactions. 2. Prey survival has a direct relationship to the functional response of their predators. We employed this relationship to estimate the functional response for bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocepalus predation of Canada goose Branta canadensis nests. We compared models that incorporated eagle abundance, nest abundance and alternative prey presence to determine the form of the functional response that best predicted intra-annual variation in survival of goose nests. 3. Eagle abundance, nest abundance and the availability of alternative prey were all related to predation rates of goose nests by eagles. There was a sigmoidal relationship between predation rate and prey abundance and prey switching occurred when alternative prey was present. In addition, predation by individual eagles increased as eagle abundance increased. 4. A complex set of interactions among the three species examined in this study determined survival rates of goose nests. Results show that eagle predation had both prey- and predator-dependent components with no support for ratio dependence. In addition, indirect interactions resulting from the availability of alternative prey had an important role in mediating the rate at which eagles depredated nests. As a result, much of the within-season variation in nest survival was due to changing availability of alternative prey consumed by eagles. 5. Empirical relationships drawn from ecological theory can be directly integrated into the estimation process to determine the mechanisms responsible for variation in observed survival rates. The relationship between predator functional response and prey survival offers a flexible and robust method to advance our understanding of predator-prey interactions in many complex natural systems where prey populations are marked and regularly visited. ?? 2006 British Ecological Society.
Additional publication details
Predator functional response and prey survival: Direct and indirect interactions affecting a marked prey population