Can a mesocarnivore fill the functional role of an apex predator?

Alexandra C. Avrin, Charles E. Pekins, Christopher C. Wilmers, Jinelle H. Sperry, Maximilian L. Allen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


As keystone species, apex predators play a role in structuring most ecosystems through competition and facilitation, thereby affecting community structure, prey abundance and behavior, vegetation, and abiotic processes. Apex predators are also highly threatened and have been extirpated from much of North America, leading to mesocarnivores, such as coyotes (Canis latrans), becoming de facto apex predators in many ecosystems. However, it is unknown if these mesocarnivores can fill the same functional keystone role as true apex predators. We compared the spatial and temporal habitat use of mesocarnivores in two similar study systems, one with pumas (Puma concolor) and one without, to determine how the role of coyotes in structuring the carnivore community changes in the absence of pumas. We used multispecies occupancy and relative abundance models to examine the spatial avoidance of pumas and coyotes by the smaller mesocarnivores, and temporal overlap and avoidance-attraction ratios to examine temporal avoidance. We found that coyotes partially fill the functional role of apex predators, but with weaker effects than pumas. Where pumas were absent, site use intensity and relative abundance increased for coyotes (180% and 1250%) and raccoons (Procyon lotor, 308% and 3273%) and decreased for bobcats (Lynx rufus, 36% and 55%), gray foxes (Urocyon cinereoargenteus, 13% and 32%), and striped skunks (Mephitis mephitis, 3% and 12%). Coyotes and raccoons shifted their temporal activity away from pumas, while gray foxes shifted their activity closer to pumas. Detection likelihood decreased for all species after detection of a puma (67%–93%) or coyote (46%–94%) in both sites, but small mesocarnivores avoided pumas more than coyotes in the study area with both. Interactions between carnivores are complex and best understood with multiple measures and in the context of the full community. While coyotes appear to suppress smaller mesocarnivores by some measures (e.g., temporal avoidance), they do not by others (e.g., spatial avoidance) and have overall weaker effects than pumas. Our results suggest that coyotes are not a substitute for apex predators, and conserving true apex predators is likely important for maintaining ecosystem health.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere4383
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2023


  • carnivore
  • trophic cascade
  • predation
  • mesopredator
  • keystone species
  • interspecific interactions
  • competition
  • community ecology


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