Inducible defense destabilizes predator-prey dynamics: the importance of multiple predators

9 May 2018

van Velzen, Ellen; Thieser, Tamara; Berendonk, Thomas; Weitere, Markus; Gaedke, Ursula

Phenotypic plasticity in prey can have a dramatic impact on predator-prey dynamics, e.g. by inducible defense against temporally varying levels of predation. Previous work has overwhelmingly shown that this effect is stabilizing: inducible defenses dampen the amplitudes of population oscillations or eliminate them altogether. However, such studies have neglected scenarios where being protected against one predator increases vulnerability to another (incompatible defense). Here we develop a model for such a scenario, using two distinct prey phenotypes and two predator species. Each prey phenotype is defended against one of the predators, and vulnerable to the other. In strong contrast with previous studies on the dynamic effects of plasticity involving a single predator, we find that increasing the level of plasticity consistently destabilizes the system, as measured by the amplitude of oscillations and the coefficients of variation of both total prey and total predator biomasses. We explain this unexpected and seemingly counterintuitive result by showing that plasticity causes synchronization between the two prey phenotypes (and, through this, between the predators), thus increasing the temporal variability in biomass dynamics. These results challenge the common view that plasticity should always have a stabilizing effect on biomass dynamics: adding a single predator-prey interaction to an established model structure gives rise to a system where different mechanisms may be at play, leading to dramatically different outcomes.