A study published in the Public Library of Science (aka PLoS) concludes that shorter, warmer winters in Yellowstone leave less winter food sources for scavenger species. But, when wolves were factored in, the ecosystem thrived and species diversity increased.
As climate changes in Yellowstone, therefore, scavenger species may experience a dramatic reshuffling of food resources. As such, we analyzed 55 y of weather data from Yellowstone in order to determine trends in winter conditions. We found that winters are getting shorter, as measured by the number of days with snow on the ground, due to decreased snowfall and increased number of days with temperatures above freezing.
To investigate synergistic effects of human and climatic alterations of species interactions, we used an empirically derived model to show that in the absence of wolves, early snow thaw leads to a substantial reduction in late-winter carrion, causing potential food bottlenecks for scavengers. In addition, by narrowing the window of time over which carrion is available and thereby creating a resource pulse, climate change likely favors scavengers that can quickly track food sources over great distances. Wolves, however, largely mitigate late-winter reduction in carrion due to earlier snow thaws.
By buffering the effects of climate change on carrion availability, wolves allow scavengers to adapt to a changing environment over a longer time scale more commensurate with natural processes.
The paper is available for free download at PLoS, an open source data base for peer-reviewed science.
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