Shrub encroachment creates a dynamic landscape of fear for desert lagomorphs via multiple pathways

Casey J. Wagnon, Robert L. Schooley, Bradley J. Cosentino

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Shrub encroachment is transforming arid and semiarid grasslands worldwide. Such transitions should influence predator–prey interactions because vegetation cover often affects risk perception by prey and contributes to their landscape of fear. We examined how the landscape of fear of two desert lagomorphs (black-tailed jackrabbit, Lepus californicus; desert cottontail, Sylvilagus audubonii) changes across grassland-to-shrubland gradients at Jornada Basin Long Term Ecological Research site in the Chihuahuan Desert of southern New Mexico. We test whether shrub encroachment shapes risk differently for these two lagomorphs because of differences in body size and predator escape tactics. We also examine whether an ecosystem engineer of grasslands (banner-tailed kangaroo rat, Dipodomys spectabilis) mediates risk perception through the creation of escape refuge and whether trade-offs exist between shrub encroachment and the local reduction of banner-tailed kangaroo rats caused by shrub expansion. We measured perceived predation risk with flight initiation distances (FIDs) and then used structural equation modeling to tease apart the hypothesized direct and indirect pathways for how shrub encroachment could affect perceived risk. A total negative effect of shrub cover on FID was supported for jackrabbits and cottontails, suggesting both species perceive shrubbier habitat as safer. Increases in fine-scale concealment also reduced risk for cottontails, but not jackrabbits, likely because cottontails rely on crypsis to avoid predator detection whereas jackrabbits rely on speed and agility to outrun predators. Perceived risk was reduced when individuals were near kangaroo rat mounds only for cottontails because the smaller species can use banner-tailed kangaroo rat mounds as refuge. Shrub encroachment greatly reduced the availability of mounds. Thus, a trade-off exists for cottontails in which shrub encroachment directly reduced perceived risk, but indirectly increased perceived risk through the local extirpation of an ecosystem engineer. Our work illustrates how the expansion of shrub encroachment can create a dynamic landscape of fear for populations of prey species involving direct and indirect pathways contingent on prey body size, escape tactics, and activities of an ecosystem engineer.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere03240
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 1 2020


  • Chihuahuan Desert
  • Special Feature: Dynamic Deserts
  • black-tailed jackrabbit
  • desert cottontail
  • ecosystem engineer
  • flight initiation distance
  • lagomorphs
  • landscape of fear
  • predation risk
  • shrub encroachment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology

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