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American carnivores evolved to avoid each other, new study suggests

How do the many carnivorous animals of the Americas avoid competing for the same lunch, or becoming each other's meal?

A possible answer comes from a new study by a pair of researchers at the University of California, Davis. Their large-scale analysis shows that it's not just chance that's at play, but avoidance strategies themselves that have been a driving force in the evolution of many carnivores, influencing such factors as whether species are active daytime or nighttime, whether they inhabit forests or grasslands, or live in trees or on the ground.

The Americas are home to more than 80 species of terrestrial carnivores, including cats, dogs, bears, weasels, skunks and raccoons. Commonly, 20 or more species can occupy the same region.

"For the most part, these overlapping species all share the same prey base -- other animals -- which includes each other," said Jennifer Hunter, who conducted the study for her Ph.D. dissertation in ecology.

Hunter and co-author Tim Caro, professor of wildlife, fish and conservation biology, first plotted the known ranges of all of the American carnivores on one big digital map. Assuming that wherever ranges overlapped, competition and predation between those species was possible, they then compared those animals' behavioral characteristics, body sizes and coloration. By analyzing this huge matrix of information, they were able to tease out broad patterns of strategies employed by each family.

For example, their map showed that the bear and dog families shared ranges with the greatest number of potential competitors. Most species in these families are omnivores, which helps reduce competition for a meat diet.

Raccoon family members, although small, run the lowest risk of becoming prey, because most live out of harm's way in trees.

One of their most surprising findings, Hunter said, was that the most petite carnivores, skunks, along with some weasels, lack an av

Contact: Liese Greensfelder
University of California - Davis

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