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While the cat's away: Predators' fear of humans ripples through wildlife communities

July 17, 2019

By Jennifer McNulty

Puma (mountain lion) in an oak tree
Photo by Paul Houghtaling

Giving credence to the saying, "While the cat's away, the mice will play," a new study indicates that pumas and medium-sized carnivores lie low when they sense the presence of humans, which frees up the landscape for rodents to forage more brazenly.

Humans are top predators of many wildlife species, and our mere presence can create a "landscape of fear," according to researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Fear of humans suppresses the movement and activity of pumas, bobcats, skunks, and opossums, which benefits small mammals. As their own predators respond to their fear of humans, deer mice and wood rats perceive less risk and in turn forage for food farther away and more intensively, they found.

The new study, "Fear of Humans as Apex Predators has Landscape-scale Impacts from Mountain Lions to Mice," appears in the July 17 online edition of the journal Ecology Letters.

"Humans are sufficiently scary to pumas and smaller predators that they suppressed their behavior and changed the way they used their habitats when they thought we were around," said lead author Justin Suraci, a postdoctoral researcher at UC Santa Cruz. "The most surprising part was seeing how those changes benefit rodents."

Read more of this story at the UCSC News center.

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