Effects of predator control on behaviour of an apex predator and indirect consequences for mesopredator suppression.
Apex predators can benefit ecosystems through top-down control of mesopredators and herbivores. However, apex predators are often subject to lethal control aimed at minimizing attacks on livestock. Lethal control can affect both the abundance and behaviour of apex predators. These changes could in turn influence the abundance and behaviour of mesopredators. We used remote camera surveys at nine pairs of large Australian rangeland properties, comparing properties that controlled dingoes Canis lupus dingo with properties that did not, to test the effects of predator control on dingo activity and to evaluate the responses of a mesopredator, the feral cat Felis catus. Indices of dingo abundance were generally reduced on properties that practiced dingo control, in comparison with paired properties that did not, although the effect size of control was variable. Dingoes in uncontrolled populations were crepuscular, similar to major prey. In populations subject to control, dingoes became less active around dusk, and activity was concentrated in the period shortly before dawn. Shifts in feral cat abundance indices between properties with and without dingo control were inversely related to corresponding shifts in indices of dingo abundance. There was also a negative relationship between predator visitation rates at individual camera stations, suggesting cats avoided areas where dingoes were locally common. Reduced activity by dingoes at dusk was associated with higher activity of cats at dusk. Our results suggest that effective dingo control not only leads to higher abundance of feral cats, but allows them to optimize hunting behaviour when dingoes are less active. This double effect could amplify the impacts of dingo control on prey species selected by cats. In areas managed for conservation, stable dingo populations may thus contribute to management objectives by restricting feral cat access to prey populations. Synthesis and applications. Predator control not only reduces indices of apex predator abundance but can also modify their behaviour. Hence, indicators other than abundance, such as behavioural patterns, should be considered when estimating a predator's capacity to effectively interact with lower trophic guilds. Changes to apex predator behaviour may relax limitations on the behaviour of mesopredators, providing enhanced access to resources and prey.