Killer appetites

Source: T.M. Williams, J.A. Estes D.F. Doak, A.M. Springer, the Ecology society of America
Large body size, carnivory, and endothermic costs lead to exceptionally high caloric demands in many mammalian predators. The potential impact on prey resources may be marked but is difficult to demonstrate because of the mobility, sparseness, and cryptic nature of these animals.
In this study, we developed a method based on comparative bioenergetics and demographic modeling to evaluate predator effects and then used this approach to assess the potential impact of killer whales on sea otter and Steller sea lion populations in the Aleutian Islands. Daily caloric requirements of killer whales determined from allometric regressions for field metabolic rate show that an adult killer whale requires 51–59 kcal·kg-1·d-1 (2.5–2.9 W/kg). Caloric values of prey items determined by bomb calorimetry ranged from 41 630 kcal for an adult female sea otter to sequentially higher values for male otters, sea lion pups, and adult Steller sea lions. Integrating these results with demographic changes in marine mammal populations show that fewer than 40 killer whales could have caused the recent Steller sea lion decline in the Aleutian archipelago; a pod of five individuals could account for the decline in sea otters and the continued suppression of sea lions. The collapse of the historical prey base of killer whales due to human whaling may have contributed to a sequential dietary switch from high to low caloric value prey, thereby initiating these declines. This study demonstrates that a combined physiological–demographic approach increases our ability to critically evaluate the potential impact of a predator on community structure and enables us to define underlying mechanisms that drive or constrain top-down forcing in dynamic ecosystems.
Ecology (pdf)