Cooccurrence of prey species alters the impact of predators on prey performance through multiple mechanisms

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Ruehl, Clifton B.
Vance-Chalcraft, Heather
Chalcraft, David R.

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When prey are differentially affected by intra and interspecific competition, the cooccurrence of multiple prey species alters the per capita availability of food for a particular prey species which could alter how prey respond to the threat of predation, and hence the overall‐effect of predators. We conducted an experiment to examine the extent to which the nonconsumptive and overall effect of predatory water bugs on snail and tadpole traits (performance and morphology) depended on whether tadpoles and snails cooccurred. Tadpoles and snails differed in their relative susceptibility to intraspecific and interspecific competition, and predators affected both prey species via consumptive and nonconsumptive mechanisms. Furthermore, the overall effect of predators often depended on whether another prey species was present. The reasoning for why the overall effect of predators depended on whether prey species cooccurred, however, differed for each of the response variables. Predators affected snail body growth via nonconsumptive mechanisms, but the change in the overall effect of predators on snail body growth was attributable to how snails responded to competition in the absence of predators, rather than a change in how snails responded to the threat of predation. Predators did not affect tadpole body growth via nonconsumptive mechanisms, but the greater vulnerability of competitively superior prey (snails) to predators increased the strength of consumptive mechanisms (and hence the overall effect) through which predators affected tadpole growth. Predators affected tadpole morphology via nonconsumptive mechanisms, but the greater propensity for predators to kill competitively superior prey (snails) enhanced the ability of tadpoles to alter their morphology in response to the threat of predation by creating an environment where tadpoles had a higher per capita supply of food available to invest in the development of morphological defenses. Our work indicates that the mechanisms through which predators affect prey depends on the other members of the community.