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Escaping from a predator is a matter of life or death, and prey are expected to adaptively alter their physiology under chronic predation risk in ways that may affect escape. Theoretical models assume that escape performance is mass dependent, whereby scared prey strategically maintain an optimal body mass to enhance escape. Experiments testing the mass-dependent predation risk hypothesis have demonstrated that prior experience of predation risk can affect body mass, and the behavioural decisions about evasive actions to take. Other studies on natural changes in body mass indicate that mass can affect escape. No single experiment has tested if all of these components are indeed linked, which is a critical necessary condition underpinning the mass-dependent predation risk hypothesis. We tested all components of the mass-dependent predation risk hypothesis in a repeated measures experiment by presenting predator and non-predator cues to brown-headed cowbirds housed in semi-natural conditions. Exposure to predator cues affected body mass, fat, pectoral muscle thickness and evasive actions (take-off angle and speed), but not the physiological capacity to escape, as measured by flying ability. Examining individual variation revealed that flying ability was unrelated to mass loss in either sex, unrelated to mass gain in males, and only females that gained a very large amount of mass flew poorly. We next conducted a body mass manipulation in the laboratory to rigorously test whether small to large perturbations in mass can ever affect flying ability. We induced either no change in mass (control), a moderate reduction of 10% which the literature suggests should enhance flight. Flying ability was maintained regardless of treatment. Examining individual variation revealed the same precise patterns as in the first experiment. We conclude that prey may alter their mass and evasive actions in response to predation risk, but their escape ability remains robust and inelastic, presumably because disabling oneself is likely to lead to disastrous consequences. We suggest that animals may only face a mass-dependent predation risk trade-off in a narrow set of circumstances linked to life-history stages that require large amounts of mass gain, for example, parturition and migration. A lay summary is available for this article.
Citation of this paper:
Walters, B.T., Cheng, T.N.N., Doyle, J., Guglielmo, C.G., Clinchy, M. and Zanette, L.Y. (2017), Too important to tamper with: predation risk affects body mass and escape behaviour but not escape ability. Funct Ecol, 31: 1405-1417. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2435.12851