Evaluating prey switching in wolf-ungulate systems

Robert A. Garrott, Jason E. Bruggeman, Matthew S. Becker, Steven T. Kalinowski, P. J. White

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

74 Scopus citations


Wolf restoration has become a widely accepted conservation and management practice throughout North America and Europe, though the ecosystem effects of returning top carnivores remain both scientific and societal controversies. Mathematical models predicting and describing wolf-ungulate interactions are typically limited to the wolves' primary prey, with the potential for prey switching in wolf-multiple-ungulate systems only suggested or assumed by a number of investigators. We used insights gained from experiments on small taxa and field data from ongoing wolf-ungulate studies to construct a model of predator diet composition for a wolf-elk-bison system in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA. The model explicitly incorporates differential vulnerability of the ungulate prey types to predation, predator preference, differences in prey biomass, and the possibility of prey switching. Our model demonstrates wolf diet shifts with changes in relative abundance of the two prey, with the dynamics of this shift dependent on the combined influences of preference, differential vulnerability, relative abundances of prey, and whether or not switching occurs. Differences in vulnerability between elk and bison, and strong wolf preference for elk, result in an abrupt dietary shift occurring only when elk are very rare relative to bison, whereas incorporating switching initiates the dietary shift more gradually and at higher bison-elk ratios. We demonstrate how researchers can apply these equations in newly restored wolf-two-prey systems to empirically evaluate whether prey switching is occurring. Each coefficient in the model has a biological interpretation, and most can be directly estimated from empirical data collected from field studies. Given the potential for switching to dramatically influence predator-prey dynamics and the wide range of expected prey types and abundances in some systems where wolves are present and/or being restored, we suggest that this is an important and productive line of research that should be pursued by ecologists working in wolf-ungulate systems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1588-1597
Number of pages10
JournalEcological Applications
Issue number6
StatePublished - Sep 2007


  • Bison
  • Canis lupus
  • Cervus elaphus
  • Elk
  • Functional response
  • Predator-prey dynamics
  • Preference
  • Prey switching
  • Ratio dependence
  • Ungulates
  • Vulnerability
  • Wolves


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