Does the risk of encountering lions influence African herbivore behaviour at waterholes?

A central question in the study of predator–prey relationships is to what extent prey behaviour is determined by avoidance of predators. Here, we test whether the long-term risk of encountering lions and the presence of lions in the vicinity influence the behaviour of large African herbivores at waterholes through avoidance of high-risk areas, increases in group size, changes in temporal niche or changes in the time spent in waterhole areas. In Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, we monitored waterholes to study the behaviour of nine herbivore species under different risks of encountering lions. We radio-collared 26 lions in the study area which provided the opportunity to monitor whether lions were present during observation sessions and to map longer-term seasonal landscapes of risk of encountering lions. Our results show that the preferred prey species for lions (buffalo, kudu and giraffe) avoided risky waterholes. Group size increased as encounter risk increased for only two species (wildebeest and zebra), but this effect was not strong. Interestingly, buffalo avoided the hours of the day which are dangerous when the long-term and short-term risks of encountering lions were high, and all species showed avoidance of waterhole use at night times when lions were in the vicinity. This illustrates well how prey can make temporal adjustments to avoid dangerous periods coinciding with predator hunting. Additionally, many herbivores spent more time accessing water to drink when the long- and short-term risks of encountering lions were high, and they showed longer potential drinking time when the long-term risk of encountering lions was high, suggesting higher levels of vigilance. This study illustrates the diversity of behavioural adjustments to the risk of encountering a predator and how prey respond differently to temporal variations in this risk.

Last Updated
January 26, 2021
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