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Individual hunting behaviour and prey specialisation in the house cat Felis catus: Implications for conservation and management Public Deposited

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  • Predators are often classed as prey specialists if they eat a narrow range of prey types, or as generalists if they hunt multiple prey types. Yet, individual predators often exhibit sex, size, age or personality-related differences in their diets that may alter the impacts of predation on different prey groups. In this study, we asked whether the house cat Felis catus shows individuality and specialisation in its hunting behaviour and discuss the implications of such specialisation for prey conservation and management. We first examined the prey types killed by cats using information obtained from cat owners, and then presented data on cat hunting efficiency on different prey types from direct observations. Finally, we quantified dietary shifts in cats when densities of their preferred prey varied. Twenty-six cats that returned 10 or more prey items to their owners showed marked differences in prey preferences (P < 0.001), with eight cats specialising on small birds, five on lizards, four on black rats Rattus rattus, three on large birds, and six returning multiple prey types. Observations of 182 hunting attempts by 15 cats showed significantly high hunting efficiency (P < 0.05) by four cats on rodents (83–100% of attacks on rodents were successful) and by one cat on rabbits Oryctolagus cuniculus (94% attack success), whereas 10 cats hunted two or three prey types with similar efficiency. At two field sites where rabbits were preferred cat-prey, the percentage of rabbit in the diet of cats showed quadratic relationships against rabbit density, with cats consuming rabbits when they were undetected in surveys. Our results suggest that cats can exhibit individual, or between-phenotype, variation in hunting behaviour, and will hunt specific prey types even when these prey become scarce. From a conservation perspective, these findings have important implications, particularly if cats preferentially select rare or threatened species at times when populations of these species are low. Determining whether prey specialisation exists within a given cat population should therefore be useful for assessing the likely risk of localised prey extinctions. If risks are high, conservation managers may need to use targeted measures to control the impacts of specialist individual cats by using specific baits or lures to attract them. We conclude that individuality in hunting behaviour and prey preference may contribute to the predatory efficiency of the house cat, and suggest that studies of the ontogeny and maintenance of specialist behaviours be priorities for future research.
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  • Dickman, C. R., & Newsome, T. M. (2015). Individual hunting behaviour and prey specialisation in the house cat Felis catus: implications for conservation and management. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 173, 76-87. doi:10.1016/j.applanim.2014.09.021
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  • Funding was provided by the British Ecological Society, the Mammal Society, a CSIRO-University of Western Australia joint research grant, and the Australian Research Council. Grant Number DP0451749, DP0452475 and DP140104621.
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