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Background for Teachers

Predator vs. Prey
TPW Magazine, September 2008

[note: words in bold are listed in the vocabulary.]

People and wildlife need food, water, shelter and space to live. Finding food is tricky business for predators, often tougher than one might imagine. More often than not, prey escapes. In the natural world, populations of species compete for habitat; food, water and home territory. Should these resources become scarce and competition too tough, that population must either adapt, move or die.

Predators often rely on special adaptations to seek out, hunt and capture their prey. Inherited traits such as forward-facing eyes, keen senses, fast running, claws, pinchers, camouflage or special coloration or venom are adaptation advantages. For some predators, that's only half the story. Predators may need to learn how to hunt and capture prey through practice and observation. For example, mountain lion cubs naturally roughhouse with each other, but successful stalking and pouncing to capture prey is a learned trait.

Who loves a skunk? a coyote? a spider? Some predators need a little public relations help! Fairy tales and fear demonize predators and our hearts go out to helpless prey animals. Consider this as a possible life lesson about judging by looks, the unknown or false perceptions.

What happens when we remove a predator? The balance of an ecosystem is disturbed, affecting populations and habitat. Gone unchecked, prey species can over-populate an area to starvation by exhausting food and water resources, spread disease through too high a concentration of individuals and can affect the plant and animal diversity of the habitat. For example, in the 1990s Audubon magazine wrote about one of their preserves in New York state where large predators (including hunters) were removed. Deer flourished and the population grew until they ate away the understory (low plants and bushes), twigs and bark on the trees. They ended up with starving deer, no plants and no birds. No berries, no bugs, no nesting areas were left. The lower two thirds of a woods provide the greatest percentage of plant and wildlife diversity. With this rich section of habitat decimated by the overpopulation of deer, all the birds left for greener pastures. Audubon decided to reintroduce predators to reestablish the balance nature intended.

And what happens when a predator becomes a prey? In the magazine, we use the example of the predator spider on page one becoming the prey on page two. In a food web, there are multiple levels of consumers. Predators are an essential element in an ecosystem!

Additional Reading

For background and as a supplement for advanced young readers, try these Young Naturalist articles:

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