Prey populations: the only thing to fear is fear itself

In reference to the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt is famously quoted as stating during his 1933 inaugural speech “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Roosevelt was no biologist, but his words could equally apply to a different type of depression – the decline of animal populations that can be caused by fear.


Roosevelt’s inauguration in 1933. Credit: Architect of the Capitol.

Ecologists have long known that predators can depress prey populations by killing substantial numbers of their prey. But only in the past two decades or so have they realized that predators can, simply by their presence, cause prey populations to go into decline. There are many different ways this can happen, but, in general, a predation threat sensed by a prey organism can interfere with its feeding behavior, causing it to grow more slowly, or to starve to death. As one example, elk populations declined after wolves were introduced to Yellowstone National Park. There are many factors associated with this decline, but one factor is fear of predators causes elk to spend more time scanning and less time foraging. Also, elk tend to stay away from wolf hotspots, which are often places with good elk forage.

Liana Zanette recognized that ecologists had not considered whether predator presence can cause bird or mammal parents to reduce the amount of provisioning they provide to dependent offspring, thereby reducing offspring growth and survival, and slowing down population growth. For many years, she and her colleagues have studied the Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia, on several small Gulf Islands in British Columbia, Canada. In an early study, she showed that playbacks of predator calls reduced parental provisioning by 26%, resulting in a 40% reduction in the estimated number of nestlings that fledged (left the nest). But, as she points out, Song Sparrow parents provision their offspring for many days after fledging; she wondered whether continued perception of a predation threat during this later time period further decreased offspring survival and ultimately population growth.

Song sparrow

The Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia. Credit: Free Software Foundation.

Zanette’s student, Blair Dudeck, did much of the fieldwork for this study. The researchers captured nestlings six days after hatching , weighed and banded them, and fit them with tiny radio collars. They then recaptured and weighed the nestlings within a few hours of fledging (at about 12 days post-hatching) to assess nestling growth rates.


Banded sparrow nestling with radio antenna trailing from below its wing. Credit: Marek C. Allen.

Three days after the birds fledged, Dudeck radio-tracked them, and surrounded them with three speakers approximately 8 meters from where they perched. For one hour, each youngster listened to recordings of calls made by predators such as ravens or hawks, followed, after a brief rest period, by one hour of calls made by non-predators such as geese or woodpeckers (or vice-versa). During the playbacks, Dudeck observed the birds to record how often the parents visited and fed their offspring, and whether offspring behavior changed in association with predator calls. This included recording all of the offspring begging calls.


Blair Dudeck simultaneously uses a tracking device to locate Song Sparrows and a recorder mounted to his head to record their begging calls. Credit: Marek C. Allen.

Fear had a major impact on parental behavior. Parents reduced food provisioning vists by 37% when predator calls were played in comparison to when non-predator calls were played. They also fed offspring fewer times per visit, which resulted in 44% fewer meals in association with predator calls.


Mean number of parental provisioning visits (in one hour) in relation to whether predator (red) or non-predator (blue) calls were played. Error bars are 1 SE.

Hearing predator calls had no effect on offspring behavior – they continued to beg for food at a high rate, and did not attempt to hide.

Some parents were much more scared than others – in fact, some parents were not scared at all. The researchers measured parental fearfulness by subtracting the number of provisioning visits by parents during predator calls from the number of visits during non-predator calls. A more positive number indicated a more fearful parent (a negative number represents a parent who fed more in the presence of predator calls). The researchers discovered that more fearful parents tended to have offspring that were in poorer condition at day 6 and at fledging.


Offspring weight on day 6 (open circles) and at fledging (solid circles) in relation to parental fearfulness.  Higher positive numbers on x-axis indicate increasingly fearful parents.

Importantly, more fearful parents tended to have offspring that died at an earlier age. Based on this finding, the researchers created a statistical model that compared survival of offspring that heard predator playbacks throughout late-development with survival of offspring that heard non-predator playbacks during the same time period. They estimated a 24% reduction in survival. Combined with their previous study on playbacks during early development, the researchers estimate that hearing predator playbacks throughout early and late development would reduce offspring survival by an amazing 53%.

This “fear itself” phenomenon can extend to other trophic levels in a food web. For example recent research by Zanette and a different group of researchers showed that playbacks of large carnivore vocalizations dramatically reduced foraging by raccoons on their major prey, red rock crabs. When these carnivore playbacks were continued for a month, red rock crab populations increased sharply. This increase in crab population size was followed by a decline of the crab’s major competitor – the staghorn sculpin, and the crab’s favorite food, a Littorina periwinkle. Thus “fear itself” can cascade through the food web, affecting multiple trophic levels in important ways that ecologists are now beginning to understand.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Dudeck, B. P., Clinchy, M., Allen, M. C. and Zanette, L. Y. (2018), Fear affects parental care, which predicts juvenile survival and exacerbates the total cost of fear on demography. Ecology, 99: 127–135. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2018 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Is your goose cooked? Climate change and phenological mismatch.

As an undergraduate at the University of Manitoba, Megan Ross investigated nutrient reserves stored up by Lesser Snow Geese before reproduction in southern Manitoba. These reserves of fat and protein are critical to female geese, who then fly thousands of kilometers north to breeding grounds above the Arctic Circle, where they lay eggs and raise their young. For her Master’s thesis (this study), Ross investigated how nutrient levels influence adult reproductive success and recruitment of new goslings into the population.


Lesser Snow Goose on its nest. Credit: Megan Ross

As climates become warmer and more variable, there is a danger that goose reproduction may fall out of synchrony with the availability of high quality food in the feeding grounds – a phenomenon called phenological mismatch. If eggs don’t hatch until substantially after the grass is well-established, then grass nutritive value may not be high enough to raise a goose family. The problem is that even if geese had the ability to adjust the timing of their migration, it would be very difficult for them to know what feeding conditions are like thousands of kilometers away. Ross and her colleagues explored several questions regarding phenological mismatch and how successfully Snow Geese and Ross’s Geese (a smaller relative of Snow Geese – not named after our senior author) raise their broods.


Ross’s Goose paddling about. Credit: DickDaniels (

Those of you who hang out near ponds, golf courses, or farms probably know that goose populations are thriving. Over the past few decades, geese at Karrak Lake in Nunavut, Canada, have increased sharply in population, though the growth rate has leveled off in recent years (see graph below).


Combined estimate of Ross’s Goose and Lesser Snow Goose population size at Karrak Lake. Credit: Megan Ross.

Measuring recruitment of goslings into a population of a million birds is not the easiest task. The researchers used helicopters to herd the birds into portable geese corrals, and then simply calculated the proportion of juveniles as their measure of recruitment. They also weighed, measured and banded all of the captured birds before releasing them, unharmed back into the environment. For each year of the study, they calculated phenological mismatch as the difference between the mean annual hatch date and the NDVI50 date (which stands for the date of 50% annual maximum Normalized Difference Vegetation Index). To calculate NDVI50, researchers use satellite images to estimate the date at which the environment achieved 50% of maximum green-up for the year.


Small portion of the goose population near Karrak Lake. Credit: Megan Ross

Several factors were related to recruitment. For both species, recruitment was very low in years with considerable phenological mismatch (Graph a). High recruitment was associated with high levels of protein in both species (Graph b), and high levels of fat in snow geese (Graph d). Recruitment was also greatest if nests were initiated early in the year (Graph c).


Mean annual values for Ross’s Geese (gray circles) and Lesser Snow Geese (black circles) in relation to (a) phenological mismatch, (b) female body protein index, (c) ELI (early late index) – a measure of nest initiation date (for example, ELI = -5 means that nests were initiated 5 days earlier than average on that particular year), and (d) female body fat index.

The number of eggs per clutch, and the number of nests that produced at least one gosling (nest success) were highest when geese initiated their nests earlier in the year. Snow Geese laid, on average, more eggs, than did Ross’s Geese, but Ross’s Geese had somewhat higher nesting success than did Snow Geese. But nutrients also figure into this increasingly complex picture. In years when females stored up more protein, they tended to lay more eggs.


Three Lesser Snow Goose goslings huddle together. Credit: Megan Ross.

Not surprisingly, the researchers also demonstrated that warmer springs were associated with earlier vegetation growth (NDVI50). The geese were able to adjust somewhat to earlier NDVI50 by initiating nests earlier in the year. However, these adjustments were only partial at best, so that phenological mismatch was very high in years that greened-up early (the distance along the x-axis between the data points and the bold dotted line in the graph below).


Mean annual hatch date for Ross’s Geese (gray circles) and Lesser Snow Geese (black circles) in relation to the date of the year that NDVI50 is reached.  The bold dotted line is the expected value if there were no phenological mismatch.

From these data, you might ask why don’t the geese migrate earlier in the spring? One problem is that they need enough protein and fat to migrate, to produce eggs and to incubate the eggs during the cool Arctic spring. Another part of the problem is that gonadal development is determined by day length – not temperature – so there is a limit to how early in the year the geese are able to begin courtship and breeding activities. The concern is that if, as expected, environmental warming continues, phenological mismatch could become more extreme, further reducing juvenile recruitment, and putting a seemingly robust population at risk.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Ross, Megan V., Alisauskas, Ray T., Douglas, David C. and Kellett, Dana K. (2017), Decadal declines in avian herbivore reproduction: density-dependent nutrition and phenological mismatch in the Arctic. Ecology, 98: 1869–1883. doi:10.1002/ecy.1856. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2017 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.