The Role of Carcasses Within Ecosystems

Carcasses are resources whose role is often minimized in ecological theory (DeVault 2003). Since animals can die at any place and time, a carcass is considered a “prize” for many species that obtain some benefit. From carnivores and avian scavengers to the microcosm, a large number of species, including plants, can benefit from the appearance of carcasses. Consumers can exhibit numeric and/or functional responses including behavioural changes, and increases in their reproductive rates in response to carcasses. A possible increase in the populations of consumers of carrion may trigger changes in the interactions between them and their prey, predators, competitors and parasites. In addition to these direct effects, indirect effects can occur that can elicit “cascading” effects through food chains, both bottom-up and top-down, ultimately affecting the community structure the ecosystem functioning (Cortés-Avizanda 2011; Yang et al. 2008; Fig. 5.1).

From an abiotic point of view, it is noteworthy that the appearance of a carcass represents a key natural “disturbance” in the composition of soils and plant communities, because it means a sudden availability of nutrients (Towne 2000; Melis et al. 2007). In fact, based on the high levels recorded of soil nutrients deposit, biomass production and activity of edaphic fauna, the experts have defined the carcasses as “islands of decomposition” (Carter et al. 2007; Selva and Cortés-Avizanda 2009; Fig. 5.1). This increase in soil nutrient concentration in the vicinity of a carcass shows a gradient decreasing towards the periphery and which may persist for several years (Towne 2000; Danell et al. 2002; Melis et al. 2007). For vegetation, the changes are more drastic and can occur both in terms of biomass and community structure. The “islands of decomposition” represent a resource of high quality and low competition, favouring the establishment of pioneer species. In general, it has

Fig. 5.1  Conceptual model of the energy flow and the ecological relationships that are established with the appearance of a carcass in the wild. The arrows indicate the well-known effects of some trophic groups on the others. Here it is also presented the example of the avian scavengers. The “?” indicate hypothetical effects that have not yet been studied in detail. (Based on Selva and Cortés-Avizanda 2009)

been well-described that one year after the occurrence of a carcass the richness, the diversity of species, the biomass and the vegetation cover can increase significantly in the vicinity of the carcass (Towne 2000). This effect depends on the region where it occurs and other numerous factors such as the climate, temperature and soil type. For example, if the carcass occurs in a homogeneous system or an unproductive one, then carcasses can represent a refuge for many plant species leading to an increase in the spatial diversity of the plant community (Towne 2000; Danell et al. 2002; Selva and Cortés-Avizanda 2009).

Relative to direct consumers, it has been reported that the diversity and complexity of microorganisms and invertebrates exploiting dead animals can acquire an extraordinary value (Sikes 1994). More than 500 species of arthropods (and of these, 422 species of insects) have been described in a carcass during different stages of decomposition (Payne 1965), varying by geographic region and environmental conditions (Amendt et al. 2004; Selva and Cortés-Avizanda 2009; Fig. 5.1). Many organisms show a relative specialization in relation to the type of carrion and its decomposition phase. Those organisms may respond to carcass appearance and further trophic cascades may elicit (Payne 1965; Amendt et al. 2004; and see examples in Selva and Cortés-Avizanda 2009). Among vertebrates, carcasses may be consumed by over 30 species of birds and mammals (Houston, 1979; DeVault et al. 2003; Selva 2004; Selva and Fortuna 2007). Most of these organisms are facultative scavengers, which are opportunistic carrion eaters, especially when their main prey become scarce. For instance, it is well-known that in temperate forests during harsh wintering conditions (low temperatures, thick snow cover and low availability of small mammals) predators significantly increase feeding on carcasses (Heinrich 1988; Jedrzejewski et al. 1993; Selva 2004; Selva et al. 2003, 2005; Cortés-Avizanda et al. 2009a).

Despite the importance of these many scavenger species, the avian scavengers are the organisms that have attracted the most attention because of their spectacular nature and their close relationship with humans as effective providers of ecosystem services (see below). These species have evolved different behavioural skills and morphology, allowing their coexistence through the sharing of trophic resources (Kruuk 1967; Root 1967; König 1983; Hertel 1994; Hertel and Lehman 1998; Blondel 2003; Cortés-Avizanda et al 2014; Fig. 5.2). The functioning of the guild is driven by both positive ecological processes (facilitation) and the most obvious competitive (negative) interspecific relationships (Donázar 1993; Cortés-Avizanda et al. 2012). Facilitatory processes have been proposed to follow two opposite paths within this guild: small-body-sized facultative scavengers landing earlier at carcasses can increase the chances of carcass detection by larger (specialist) vultures (local enhancement) whereas large vultures dismember the carcass thus allowing smaller scavengers to profit from the resource (trophic advantage; Kruuk 1967; König 1974, 1983; and see details in Cortés-Avizanda et al. 2012). As a consequence of this efficient process, carcasses of medium-sized animals are consumed in a very short time (Selva 2004; Cortés-Avizanda et al. 2012; Cortés-Avizanda et al. 2014).

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