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Concept: Apex predator


Most mammalian species produce facial expressions. Historically, animal facial expressions have been considered inflexible and involuntary displays of emotional states rather than active attempts to communicate with others. In the current study, we aimed to test whether domestic dog facial expressions are subject to audience effects and/ or changes in response to an arousing stimulus (e.g. food) alone. We presented dogs with an experimental situation in which a human demonstrator was either attending to them or turned away, and varied whether she presented food or not. Dogs produced significantly more facial movements when the human was attentive than when she was not. The food, however, as a non-social but arousing stimulus, did not affect the dogs' behaviour. The current study is therefore evidence that dogs are sensitive to the human’s attentional state when producing facial expressions, suggesting that facial expressions are not just inflexible and involuntary displays of emotional states, but rather potentially active attempts to communicate with others.

Concepts: Psychology, Dog, Apex predator, Dog health, Carnivora, Gray Wolf


The behavioral strategies developed by predators to capture and kill their prey are fascinating, notably for predators that forage for prey at, or beyond, the boundaries of their ecosystem. We report here the occurrence of a beaching behavior used by an alien and large-bodied freshwater predatory fish (Silurus glanis) to capture birds on land (i.e. pigeons, Columbia livia). Among a total of 45 beaching behaviors observed and filmed, 28% were successful in bird capture. Stable isotope analyses (δ(13)C and δ(15)N) of predators and their putative prey revealed a highly variable dietary contribution of land birds among individuals. Since this extreme behavior has not been reported in the native range of the species, our results suggest that some individuals in introduced predator populations may adapt their behavior to forage on novel prey in new environments, leading to behavioral and trophic specialization to actively cross the water-land interface.

Concepts: Predation, Ecology, Behavior, Hunting, Apex predator, Mobbing behavior, Predatory fish


When identifying potential trophic cascades, it is important to clearly establish the trophic linkages between predators and prey with respect to temporal abundance, demographics, distribution, and diet. In the northwest Atlantic Ocean, the depletion of large coastal sharks was thought to trigger a trophic cascade whereby predation release resulted in increased cownose ray abundance, which then caused increased predation on and subsequent collapse of commercial bivalve stocks. These claims were used to justify the development of a predator-control fishery for cownose rays, the “Save the Bay, Eat a Ray” fishery, to reduce predation on commercial bivalves. A reexamination of data suggests declines in large coastal sharks did not coincide with purported rapid increases in cownose ray abundance. Likewise, the increase in cownose ray abundance did not coincide with declines in commercial bivalves. The lack of temporal correlations coupled with published diet data suggest the purported trophic cascade is lacking the empirical linkages required of a trophic cascade. Furthermore, the life history parameters of cownose rays suggest they have low reproductive potential and their populations are incapable of rapid increases. Hypothesized trophic cascades should be closely scrutinized as spurious conclusions may negatively influence conservation and management decisions.

Concepts: Predation, Ecology, United States, Atlantic Ocean, Apex predator, Pacific Northwest, Cascade Range, Cownose ray


WE INVESTIGATED THE PRESENCE OF A KEY FEATURE OF HUMAN WORD COMPREHENSION IN A FIVE YEAR OLD BORDER COLLIE: the generalization of a word referring to an object to other objects of the same shape, also known as shape bias. Our first experiment confirmed a solid history of word learning in the dog, thus making it possible for certain object features to have become central in his word comprehension. Using an experimental paradigm originally employed to establish shape bias in children and human adults we taught the dog arbitrary object names (e.g. dax) for novel objects. Two experiments showed that when briefly familiarized with word-object mappings the dog did not generalize object names to object shape but to object size. A fourth experiment showed that when familiarized with a word-object mapping for a longer period of time the dog tended to generalize the word to objects with the same texture. These results show that the dog tested did not display human-like word comprehension, but word generalization and word reference development of a qualitatively different nature compared to humans. We conclude that a shape bias for word generalization in humans is due to the distinct evolutionary history of the human sensory system for object identification and that more research is necessary to confirm qualitative differences in word generalization between humans and dogs.

Concepts: Science, Experiment, Dog, Apex predator, Dog breed, Canidae, Gray Wolf, Canis


Dogs are particularly skilful during communicative interactions with humans. Dogs' abilities to use human communicative cues in cooperative contexts outcompete those of other species, and might be the result of selection pressures during domestication. Dogs also produce signals to direct the attention of humans towards outside entities, a behaviour often referred to as showing behaviour. This showing behaviour in dogs is thought to be something dogs use intentionally and referentially. However, there is currently no evidence that dogs communicate helpfully, i.e. to inform an ignorant human about a target that is of interest to the human but not to the dog. Communicating with a helpful motive is particularly interesting because it might suggest that dogs understand the human’s goals and need for information. In study 1, we assessed whether dogs would abandon an object that they find interesting in favour of an object useful for their human partner, a random novel distractor, or an empty container. Results showed that it was mainly self-interest that was driving the dogs' behaviour. The dogs mainly directed their behaviour towards the object they had an interest in, but dogs were more persistent when showing the object relevant to the human, suggesting that to some extent they took the humans interest into account. Another possibility is that dogs' behaviour was driven by an egocentric motivation to interact with novel targets and that the dogs' neophila might have masked their helpful tendencies. Therefore, in study 2 the dogs had initial access to both objects, and were expected to indicate only one (relevant or distractor). The human partner interacted with the dog using vocal communication in half of the trials, and remaining silent in the other half. Dogs from both experimental groups, i.e. indicating the relevant object or indicating the distractor, established joint attention with the human. However, the human’s vocal communication and the presence of the object relevant to the human increased the persistency of showing, supporting the hypothesis that the dogs understood the objects' relevance to the human. We propose two non-exclusive explanations. These results might suggest that informative motives could possibly underlie dogs' showing. It is also possible that dogs might have indicated the location of the hidden object because they recognised it as the target of the human’s search. This would be consistent with taking into account the objects' relevance, without necessarily implying that the dogs understood the human’s state of knowledge.

Concepts: Psychology, Human, Natural selection, Thought, Motivation, Object, Communication, Apex predator


Reputation formation is a key component in the social interactions of many animal species. An evaluation of reputation is drawn from two principal sources: direct experience of an individual and indirect experience from observing that individual interacting with a third party. In the current study we investigated whether dogs use direct and/or indirect experience to choose between two human interactants. In the first experiment, subjects had direct interaction either with a “nice” human (who played with, talked to and stroked the dog) or with an “ignoring” experimenter who ignored the dog completely. Results showed that the dogs stayed longer close to the “nice” human. In a second experiment the dogs observed a “nice” or “ignoring” human interacting with another dog. This indirect experience, however, did not lead to a preference between the two humans. These results suggest that the dogs in our study evaluated humans solely on the basis of direct experience.

Concepts: Species, Philosophy of science, Dog, Apex predator, Canidae, Gray Wolf, Canis, Subspecies of Canis lupus


In theoretical ecology it is well known that the steady state expressions of the variables in a food chain crucially depend on the parity of the length of the chain. This poses a major problem for modeling real food webs because it is difficult to establish their true number of trophic levels, with sometimes rare predators and often rampant pathogens. Similar problems arise in the modeling of chronic viral infections. We review examples where seemingly general interpretations strongly depend on the number of levels in a model, and on its specific equations. This Perspective aims to open the discussion on this problem.

Concepts: Immune system, Mathematics, Ecology, Thermodynamics, Trophic level, Food chain, Apex predator, Charles Sutherland Elton


Anthropogenic changes in land use and the extirpation of apex predators have facilitated explosive growth of mesopredator populations. Consequently, many species have been subjected to extensive control throughout portions of their range due to their integral role as generalist predators and reservoirs of zoonotic disease. Yet, few studies have monitored the effects of landscape composition or configuration on the demographic or behavioral response of mesopredators to population manipulation. During 2007 we removed 382 raccoons (Procyon lotor) from 30 forest patches throughout a fragmented agricultural ecosystem to test hypotheses regarding the effects of habitat isolation on population recovery and role of range expansion and dispersal in patch colonization of mesopredators in heterogeneous landscapes. Patches were allowed to recolonize naturally and demographic restructuring of patches was monitored from 2008-2010 using mark-recapture. An additional 25 control patches were monitored as a baseline measure of demography. After 3 years only 40% of experimental patches had returned to pre-removal densities. This stagnant recovery was driven by low colonization rates of females, resulting in little to no within-patch recruitment. Colonizing raccoons were predominantly young males, suggesting that dispersal, rather than range expansion, was the primary mechanism driving population recovery. Contrary to our prediction, neither landscape connectivity nor measured local habitat attributes influenced colonization rates, likely due to the high dispersal capability of raccoons and limited role of range expansion in patch colonization. Although culling is commonly used to control local populations of many mesopredators, we demonstrate that such practices create severe disruptions in population demography that may be counterproductive to disease management in fragmented landscapes due to an influx of dispersing males into depopulated areas. However, given the slow repopulation rates observed in our study, localized depopulation may be effective at reducing negative ecological impacts of mesopredators in fragmented landscapes at limited spatial and temporal scales.

Concepts: Demography, Population, Population ecology, Demographics, Demographic economics, Apex predator, Raccoon, Nurgaliev's law


The fear large carnivores inspire, independent of their direct killing of prey, may itself cause cascading effects down food webs potentially critical for conserving ecosystem function, particularly by affecting large herbivores and mesocarnivores. However, the evidence of this has been repeatedly challenged because it remains experimentally untested. Here we show that experimentally manipulating fear itself in free-living mesocarnivore (raccoon) populations using month-long playbacks of large carnivore vocalizations caused just such cascading effects, reducing mesocarnivore foraging to the benefit of the mesocarnivore’s prey, which in turn affected a competitor and prey of the mesocarnivore’s prey. We further report that by experimentally restoring the fear of large carnivores in our study system, where most large carnivores have been extirpated, we succeeded in reversing this mesocarnivore’s impacts. We suggest that our results reinforce the need to conserve large carnivores given the significant “ecosystem service” the fear of them provides.

Concepts: Causality, Predation, Ecology, Affect, Ecosystem, Food chain, Apex predator, Omnivore


Top predator loss is a major global problem, with a current trend in biodiversity loss towards high trophic levels that modifies most ecosystems worldwide. Most research in this area is focused on large-bodied predators, despite the high extinction risk of small-bodied freshwater fish that often act as apex consumers. Consequently, it remains unknown if intermittent streams are affected by the consequences of top-predators' extirpations. The aim of our research was to determine how this global problem affects intermittent streams and, in particular, if the loss of a small-bodied top predator (1) leads to a ‘mesopredator release’, affects primary consumers and changes whole community structures, and (2) triggers a cascade effect modifying the ecosystem function. To address these questions, we studied the top-down effects of a small endangered fish species, Barbus meridionalis (the Mediterranean barbel), conducting an enclosure/exclosure mesocosm experiment in an intermittent stream where B. meridionalis became locally extinct following a wildfire. We found that top predator absence led to ‘mesopredator release’, and also to ‘prey release’ despite intraguild predation, which contrasts with traditional food web theory. In addition, B. meridionalis extirpation changed whole macroinvertebrate community composition and increased total macroinvertebrate density. Regarding ecosystem function, periphyton primary production decreased in apex consumer absence. In this study, the apex consumer was functionally irreplaceable; its local extinction led to the loss of an important functional role that resulted in major changes to the ecosystem’s structure and function. This study evidences that intermittent streams can be affected by the consequences of apex consumers' extinctions, and that the loss of small-bodied top predators can lead to large ecosystem changes. We recommend the reintroduction of small-bodied apex consumers to systems where they have been extirpated, to restore ecosystem structure and function.

Concepts: Predation, Ecology, Ecosystem, Extinction, Trophic level, Food chain, Apex predator, Local extinction