Predator exposure improves anti‐predator responses in a threatened mammal

Full citation: 
West R, Letnic M, Blumstein DT, Moseby KE. Predator exposure improves anti‐predator responses in a threatened mammal. J Appl Ecol. 2018;55:147–156.
Author/s associated with the CES: 
Mike Letnic
Katherine Moseby

Abstract

1. Incorporating an understanding of animal behaviour into conservation programmes can influence conservation outcomes. Exotic predators can have devastating impacts on native prey species and thwart reintroduction efforts, in part due to prey naïveté caused by an absence of co‐evolution between predators and prey. Attempts have been made to improve the anti‐predator behaviours of reintroduced native prey by conducting laboratory‐based predator recognition training but results have been varied and have rarely led to improved survival in reintroduction programmes.

2. We investigated whether in situ predator exposure could improve anti‐predator responses of a predator‐naïve mammal by exposing prey populations to low densities of introduced predators under controlled conditions. We reintroduced 352 burrowing bettongs to a 26‐km2 fenced exclosure at the Arid Recovery Reserve in South Australia and exposed them to feral cats (density 0.03–0.15 cats/km2) over an 18‐month period. At the same time, we translocated a different group of bettongs into an exclosure free of introduced predators, as a control. We compared three behaviours (flight initiation distances, trap docility and behaviour at feeding trays) of cat‐exposed and control bettongs before the translocations, then at 6, 12 and 18 months post‐translocation.

3. Cat‐exposed bettongs displayed changes in behaviour that suggested increased wariness, relative to control bettongs. At 18 months post‐reintroduction, cat‐exposed bettongs had greater flight initiation distances and approached feed trays more slowly than control bettongs. Cat‐exposed bettongs also increased their trap docility over time.

4. Synthesis and applications. Translocation is recommended as a conservation tool for many threatened species yet success rates are generally low. We demonstrate that controlled levels of in situ predator exposure can increase wariness in the behaviour of naïve prey. Our findings provide support for the hypothesis that in situ predator exposure could be used as a method to improve the anti‐predator responses of predator‐naïve threatened species populations.

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