Mesopredator release among invasive predators: controlling red foxes can increase feral cat density and alter their behaviour.
The mesopredator release theory predicts that the density of subordinate predators will increase as dominant predators decline. Persistent debate around mesopredator release in part reflects the lack of robust, replicated experiments that test this theory, and the use of population indices that confound changes in mesopredator density and detectability. This uncertainty has immediate impacts for conservationists who are faced with managing sympatric invasive predators. We used replicated experimental designs and spatially explicit models to examine whether mesopredator release of the feral cat Felis catus occurs in response to targeted control of the introduced red fox Vulpes vulpes. We surveyed three Control-Impact paired landscapes in a region with long-term fox control (1080 poison baiting) and conducted a Before-After Control-Impact Paired-Series experiment in another region. We used fox occurrence as a simple metric of fox populations and estimated feral cat density with spatial mark-resight models. Lethal fox control had varying effects on fox occurrence, consistent with variation in the duration and intensity of poison baiting. Correspondingly, responses in feral cat density ranged from negligible to a 3.7-fold higher density in fox-baited landscapes. At a fine spatial scale (200 m2), feral cat density was negatively associated with fox occurrence probability across both regions. These results were consistent with mesopredator release, although uncertainty was high in the region where fox control had only recently commenced. Feral cat detectability also varied across the (artificially manipulated) gradients of fox occurrence probability. In one region, nonlinear models indicated that feral cats had lower detection and increased movement rates when foxes were uncommon, giving way to density suppression at high fox occurrence probabilities. Synthesis and applications. Our study provides replicated, experimental evidence that dominant predator suppression can be associated with a higher mesopredator density. Mesopredator release can manifest as changes in both behaviour and density, distorting inference if these processes are not distinguished. Our results may help explain why fox control does not consistently improve native prey persistence, suggesting integrated pest management may be necessary to improve conservation outcomes.