Large predators limit herbivore densities in northern forest ecosystems

Research paper by William J. Ripple, Robert L. Beschta

Indexed on: 04 Apr '12Published on: 04 Apr '12Published in: European Journal of Wildlife Research


There is a lack of scientific consensus about how top-down and bottom-up forces interact to structure terrestrial ecosystems. This is especially true for systems with large carnivore and herbivore species where the effects of predation versus food limitation on herbivores are controversial. Uncertainty exists whether top-down forces driven by large carnivores are common, and if so, how their influences vary with predator guild composition and primary productivity. Based on data and information in 42 published studies from over a 50-year time span, we analyzed the composition of large predator guilds and prey densities across a productivity gradient in boreal and temperate forests of North America and Eurasia. We found that predation by large mammalian carnivores, especially sympatric gray wolves (Canis lupus) and bears (Ursus spp.), apparently limits densities of large mammalian herbivores. We found that cervid densities, measured in deer equivalents, averaged nearly six times greater in areas without wolves compared to areas with wolves. In areas with wolves, herbivore density increased only slightly with increasing productivity. These predator effects are consistent with the exploitation ecosystems hypothesis and appear to occur across a broad range of net primary productivities. Results are also consistent with theory on trophic cascades, suggesting widespread and top-down forcing by large carnivores on large herbivores in forest biomes across the northern hemisphere. These findings have important conservation implications involving not only the management of large carnivores but also that of large herbivores and plant communities.