From Yellowstone National Park to the European Alps
Predator-prey dynamics have always fascinated researchers, but only recently has evidence emerged that predators may play an important role in structuring ecosystem complexity. As far as terrestrial ecosystems are concerned, there are few studies that have monitored the effects of an apex predator on other ecosystem components. For example, in Yellowstone National Park, large predators such as wolves appear to trigger complex responses at lower levels of the food chain.
Less well known is the effect of the return of large predators to more anthropised environments typical of the European context. Under action C3 of the project Life Wolfalps EU, ERSAF Parco Nazionale dello Stelvio (PNS), Aree Protette Alpi Marittime (APAM), Università di Ljubijana (UL), Slovenian Forest Service (SFS), Office Français de la Biodiversité (OFB) are collaborating in a research project to promote the coexistence of wolf and hunting activities in four different mountainous contexts in France, Italy and Slovenia. Thanks to the presence of study areas characterised by different environmental conditions – in three of them the wolf and its prey are present on a stable basis (Italy, France and Slovenia), while in one the wolf is not yet present (Italy) – it will be investigated how the presence of large predators and anthropic activities influence the number and distribution of prey populations of choice, specifically deer and roe deer. We already talked about it here.
Within the Stelvio National Park, in the area between Val Zebrù and Valle dei Forni, as far as Passo Gavia, the project’s control area has been identified. Park researchers and technicians, with the help of PhD students, scholarship holders, trainees and thesis students, investigate how deer are distributed over the territory in the absence of natural predators and hunting activity.
For this purpose, the study area of approximately 10,000 ha was divided into 50 hypothetical cells in each of which a phototrap was placed to monitor the time and space utilisation of a deer population. In addition to behavioural information, the deer are also monitored to investigate stress levels (by assessment of cortisol metabolites), diet (by DNA-barcoding), diet quality (by NIRS analysis) and the gut microbial component.
This research will provide valuable information on the dynamics between prey and predators in contexts characterised by human presence.