Competition for safe real estate, not food, drives density-dependent juvenile survival in a large herbivore

Mark A. Hurley, Mark Hebblewhite, Jean Michel Gaillard

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


Density-dependent competition for food reduces vital rates, with juvenile survival often the first to decline. A clear prediction of food-based, density-dependent competition for large herbivores is decreasing juvenile survival with increasing density. However, competition for enemy-free space could also be a significant mechanism for density dependence in territorial species. How juvenile survival is predicted to change across density depends critically on the nature of predator–prey dynamics and spatial overlap among predator and prey, especially in multiple-predator systems. Here, we used a management experiment that reduced densities of a generalist predator, coyotes, and specialist predator, mountain lions, over a 5-year period to test for spatial density dependence mediated by predation on juvenile mule deer in Idaho, USA. We tested the spatial density-dependence hypothesis by tracking the fate of 251 juvenile mule deer, estimating cause-specific mortality, and testing responses to changes in deer density and predator abundance. Overall juvenile mortality did not increase with deer density, but generalist coyote-caused mortality did, but not when coyote density was reduced experimentally. Mountain lion-caused mortality did not change with deer density in the reference area in contradiction of the food-based competition hypothesis, but declined in the treatment area, opposite to the pattern of coyotes. These observations clearly reject the food-based density-dependence hypothesis for juvenile mule deer. Instead, our results provide support for the spatial density-dependence hypothesis that competition for enemy-free space increases predation by generalist predators on juvenile large herbivores.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5464-5475
Number of pages12
JournalEcology and Evolution
Issue number12
StatePublished - Jun 1 2020


  • habitat selection
  • ideal despotic distribution
  • ideal free distribution
  • predation risk
  • predator removal experiment
  • ungulate


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