Habitat selection when killing primary versus alternative prey species supports prey specialization in an apex predator

B. Cristescu, S. Bose, L. M. Elbroch, M. L. Allen, H. U. Wittmer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Many predators specialize on one or several prey species that they select from the range of potential prey. Predator specialization on primary versus alternative prey is driven in part by encounter rates with prey and a predator’s habitat selection. Although habitat selection changes with behavioural state, this has not been well-recognized in the resource selection function (RSF) literature to date, often because auxiliary data on the predator’s behavioural states (e.g. hunting) are absent. We monitored habitat selection of pumas Puma concolor in a multi-prey system in northern California, where pumas specialized on black-tailed deer Odocoileus hemionus columbianus. We employed multiple RSF analyses on different datasets to test the following three hypotheses: (1) Pumas utilize habitats in proportion to their availability; (2) Pumas select specific habitat features when killing black-tailed deer, their primary prey; (3) Pumas do not select distinct habitats from those identified under hypothesis 1 when killing alternative prey. We found that pumas in our study selected for specific habitats and habitat features in general, but that their selection was more pronounced when killing black-tailed deer. In summer, kill sites of deer were associated with rugged terrain, but gentle slopes and northerly aspects. In winter, pumas killed deer at low elevations, on gentle slopes and on northerly and westerly aspects. Overall, evidence suggested that pumas tracked their primary prey across seasonal migrations, which were short in distance but resulted in pronounced changes in elevation. When killing alternative prey, pumas showed little evidence of habitat selection, suggesting they may kill alternative prey opportunistically. Our results hold implications for how data should be partitioned when modelling baseline habitat selection of predators, hunting habitat selection and predation risk for prey species, as well as for how we model ecological processes such as apparent competition.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)259-268
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Zoology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 1 2019


  • Odocoileus hemionus columbianus
  • Puma concolor
  • apparent competition
  • black-tailed deer
  • migration
  • predation
  • resource selection function
  • ungulates

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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