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Humans are a Greater Disturbance to Elk than Natural Predators

Elk entering vigilance mode. Credit: Simone Ciuti

A new study has shown that elk become more fearful when people are around because they perceive humans as predators.

The scientists published their findings in the journal PLOS ONE. The researchers studied elk (Cervus canadensis) in Alberta, Canada. The results come from a year-long study that tracked 424 herds and 870 individuals on public, private, and protected land. The scientists observed the animals from a safe distance and recorded their behavior. They researchers found that humans accounted for the greatest degree of disturbance to the elk, even more so than natural predators, such as wolves, cougars and grizzly bears.

When elk encountered humans, especially on public lands where hunting and ATV use was permitted, the animals snapped quickly into vigilance mode, scanning for danger. One car passing every 2 hours was enough to induce this behavior, which detracts from feeding and leaves females in a less healthy state for breeding.

“Humans are playing the same role as a natural predator, but probably at even higher levels,” states Simone Ciuti, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Alberta, and lead author. Ciuti and her colleagues plan on investigating how different human activities, like hunting and hiking impact the animals’ behavior. They also plan on finding out whether this applies to species like caribou (Rangifer tarandus), possibly helping to explain the caribou’s decline in recent years.

[via ScienceNOW]

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