The short-term response of feral cats to rabbit population decline: Are alternative native prey more at risk?

Date: 15, Nov, 2019
Author(s):   McGregor, H., Moseby, K., Johnson, C.N., Legge, S.
Publisher: Biological Invasions

The impacts of invasive predators can be amplified by high densities of invasive prey species. In Australia, hyper abundant rabbit populations lead to high densities of feral cats and correspondingly high impact of cats on native species, especially small mammals. Therefore, it would be expected reducing rabbits could also reduce abundance of cats, and thereby alleviate predation on native small mammals. However, cats might respond to the loss of rabbits by prey-switching to native small mammals, resulting in increased predation on those species. Our aim was to understand the short-term effects of an experimental reduction of rabbit abundance on feral cats and their small-mammal prey in arid South Australia. We reduced the rabbit population in a 37 km2 experimental enclosure by ~ 80%, while monitoring an adjacent unmanipulated area as a control. Cat activity and survival of VHF-collared cats in the enclosure decreased by 40% following the rabbit reduction. Surviving cats increased their consumption of reptiles, birds and invertebrates, but they nevertheless evinced hunger by increased intake of experimentally-supplied sausages. There was no change in either the proportion of cat scats that contained remains of small mammals, or the rate at which video-collared cats were recorded killing small mammals, even though the activity of small mammals declined. Our results demonstrate that individual feral cats prey-switch in response to removal of their primary prey. However, we also show that survival and overall activity of cats decreased, which could result in net, long-term benefits for native prey threatened by cats. Management of feral cats using food lures or baits would also be more effective when introduced prey are scarce, as cats are more likely to eat novel food.

The short-term response of feral cats to rabbit population decline: Are alternative native prey more at risk?