BACKGROUND: The alternative prey hypothesis describes the mechanism for apparent competition whereby the mortality of the secondary prey species increases (and population size decreases decreases) by the increased predation by the shared predator if the population size of the primary prey decreases. Apparent competition is a process where the abundance of two co-existing prey species are negatively associated because they share a mutual predator, which negatively affects the abundance of both prey Here, we examined whether alternative prey and/or apparent competition hypothesis can explain the population dynamics and reproductive output of the secondary prey, wild forest reindeer (Rangifer tarandus fennicus) in Finland, in a predator-prey community in which moose (Alces alces) is the primary prey and the wolf (Canis lupus) is the generalist predator.
METHODS: We examined a 22-year time series (1996-2017) to determine how the population size and the calf/female ratio of wild forest reindeer in Eastern Finland were related to the abundances of wolf and moose. Only moose population size was regulated by hunting. Summer predation of wolves on reindeer focuses on calves. We used least squares regression (GLS) models (for handling autocorrelated error structures and resulting pseudo-R2s) and generalized linear mixed (GLMs) models (for avoidance of negative predictions) to determine the relationships between abundances. We performed linear and general linear models for the calf/female ratio of reindeer.
RESULTS AND SYNTHESIS: The trends in reindeer population size and moose abundance were almost identical: an increase during the first years and then a decrease until the last years of our study period. Wolf population size in turn did not show long-term trends. Change in reindeer population size between consecutive winters was related positively to the calf/female ratio. The calf/female ratio was negatively related to wolf population size, but the reindeer population size was related to the wolf population only when moose abundance was entered as another independent variable. The wolf population was not related to moose abundance even though it is likely to consist the majority of the prey biomass. Because reindeer and moose populations were positively associated, our results seemed to support the alternative prey hypothesis more than the apparent competition hypothesis. However, these two hypotheses are not mutually exclusive and the primary mechanism is difficult to distinguish as the system is heavily managed by moose hunting. The recovery of wild forest reindeer in eastern Finland probably requires ecosystem management involving both habitat restoration and control of species abundances.