High food quality of prey lowers its risk of extinction

Published online: 
17 May 2017

Michael Raatz, Ursula Gaedke, Alexander Wacker

The mineral and biochemical food quality of prey may limit predator production. This well-studied direct bottom–up effect is especially prominent for herbivore–plant interactions. Low-quality prey species, particularly when defended, are generally considered to be less prone to predator-driven extinction. Undefended high-quality prey species sustain high predator production thereby potentially increasing their own extinction risk. The food quality of primary producers is highly species-specific. In communities of competing prey species, predators thus may supplement their diets of low-quality prey with high-quality prey, leading to indirect horizontal interactions between prey species of different food quality. We explore how these predator-mediated indirect interactions affect species coexistence in a general predator–prey model that is parametrized for an experimental algae– rotifer system. To cover a broad range of three essential functional traits that shape many plant–herbivore interactions we consider differences in 1) the food quality of the prey species, 2) their competitive ability for nutrient uptake and 3) their defence against predation. As expected, low food quality of prey can, similarly to defence, provide protection against extinction by predation. Counterintuitively, our simulations demonstrate that being of high food quality also prevents extinction of that prey species and additionally promotes coexistence with a competing, low-quality prey. The persistence of the high-quality prey enables a high conversion efficiency and control of the low-quality prey by the predator and allows for re-allocation of nutrients to the high-quality competitor. Our results show that high food quality is not necessarily detrimental for a prey species but instead can protect against extinction and promote species richness and functional biodiversity.