In ecology, predation describes a biological interaction where a predator (organism that is hunting) feeds on another living organism or organisms known as prey (organism that is attacked). Predators may or may not kill their prey prior to feeding on them, but the act of predation always results in the (ecologically significant) death of the prey. The other main category of consumption is detritivory, the consumption of dead organic material (detritus). It can at times be difficult to separate the two feeding behaviors, for example where parasitic species prey on a host organism and then lay their eggs on it for their offspring to feed on its decaying corpse. The key characteristic of predation however is the predator's direct impact on the prey population. On the other hand, detritivores simply eat what is available and have no direct impact on the "donor" organism(s).
For a list of feeding behaviours, see: List of feeding behaviours.
A true predator is one which kills and eats another organism. Whereas other types of predator all harm their prey in some way, this form results in their instant death. Predators may hunt actively for prey, or sit and wait for prey to approach within striking distance, as in ambush predators. Some predators kill large prey and dismember or chew it prior to eating it, such as a jaguar, while others may eat their (usually much smaller) prey whole, as does a bottlenose dolphin or any snake, or a duck or stork swallowing a frog. In some cases the prey organism may die in the mouth or digestive system of the predator. Baleen whales, for example, eat millions of microscopic plankton at once, the prey being broken down well after entering the whale. Seed predation is another form of true predation, as seeds represent potential organisms. Predators of this classification need not eat prey entirely, for example some predators cannot digest bones, while others can. Some may merely eat only part of an organism, as in grazing (see below), but still consistently cause its direct death.
Predators are often another organism's prey, and likewise prey are often predators. Though blue jays prey on insects, they may in turn be prey for cats and snakes, which may themselves be the prey of hawks. One way of classifying predators is by trophic level. Organisms which feed on autotrophs, the producers of the trophic pyramid, are known as herbivores or primary consumers; those that feed on heterotrophs such as animals are known as secondary consumers. Secondary consumers are a type of carnivore, but there are also tertiary consumers eating these carnivores, quartary consumers eating them, and so forth. Because only a fraction of energy is passed on to the next level, this hierarchy of predation must end somewhere, and very seldom goes higher than five or six levels, and may go only as high as three trophic levels (for example, a lion that preys upon large herbivores such as wildebeest which in turn eat grasses). A predator at the top of any food chain (that is, one that is preyed upon by no organism) is called an apex predator; examples include the orca, sperm whale, anaconda, Komodo dragon, tiger, bald eagle, and Nile crocodile -- and even omnivorous humans and grizzly bears. An apex predator in one environment may not retain this position as a top predator if introduced to another habitat, such as a dog among alligators.
Many organisms (of which humans are prime examples) eat from multiple levels of the food chain and thus make this classification problematic. A carnivore may eat both secondary and tertiary consumers, and its prey may itself be difficult to classify for similar reasons. Organisms showing both carnivory and herbivory are known as omnivores. Even such herbivores such as the giant panda may supplement their diet with meat. Carnivorous plants would be very difficult to fit into this classification, producing their own food but also digesting anything that they may trap. Organisms which eat detritivores or parasites would also be difficult to classify by such a scheme.
The elimination of wolves from Yellowstone National Park had profound impacts on the trophic pyramid. Without predation, herbivores began to over-graze many woody species, affecting the area's plant populations. Additionally, wolves often kept animals from grazing in riparian areas, which protected beavers from having their food sources encroached upon. The removal of wolves had a direct effect on beaver populations, as their habitat became territory for grazing.
One adaptation helping both predators and prey avoid detection is camouflage, a form of crypsis where species have an appearance which helps them blend into the background. Camouflage consists of not only color, but also shape and pattern. The background upon which the organism is seen can be both its environment (e.g. the praying mantis to the right resembling dead leaves) other organisms (e.g. zebras' stripes blend in with each other in a herd, making it difficult for lions to focus on a single target). The more convincing camouflage is, the more likely it is that the organism will go unseen.
Mimicry is a related phenomenon where an organism has a similar appearance to another species. One such example is the drone fly, which looks a lot like a bee, yet is completely harmless as it cannot sting at all. Another example of batesian mimicry is the io moth, (Automeris io), which has markings on its wings which resemble an owl's eyes. When an insectivorous predator disturbs the moth, it reveals its hind wings, temporarily startling the predator and giving it time to escape. Predators may also use mimicry to lure their prey, however. Female fireflies of the genus Photuris, for example, copy the light signals of other species, thereby attracting male fireflies which are then captured and eaten.
While successful predation results in a gain of energy, hunting invariably involves energetic costs as well. When hunger is not an issue, most predators will generally not seek to attack prey since the costs outweigh the benefits. For instance, a large predatory fish like a shark that is well fed in an aquarium will typically ignore the smaller fish swimming around it (while the prey fish take advantage of the fact that the apex predator is apparently uninterested). Surplus killing represents a deviation from this type of behaviour. The treatment of consumption in terms of cost-benefit analysis is known as optimal foraging theory, and has been quite successful in the study of animal behavior. Costs and benefits are generally considered in energy gain per unit time, though other factors are also important, such as essential nutrients that have no caloric value but are necessary for survival and health.
Social Predation offers the possibility of predators to kill creatures larger than those that members of the species could overpower singly. Lions, hyenas, wolves, dholes, African wild dogs, and piranhas can kill large herbivores that single animals of the same species could never dispatch. Social predation allows some animals to organize hunts of creatures that would easily escape a single predator; thus chimpanzees can prey upon colubus monkeys, and harrier hawks can cut off all possible escapes for a doomed rabbit. Extreme specialization of roles is evident in some hunting that requires co-operation between predators of very different species: humans with the aid of falcons or dogs, or fishing with cormorants or dogs. Social predation is often very complex behavior, and not all social creatures (for example, domestic cats perform it. Even without complex intelligence but instinct alone, some ant species can destroy much-larger creatures.
Size-selective predation involves predators preferring prey of a certain size. Large prey may prove troublesome for a predator, while small prey might prove hard to find and in any case provide less of a reward. This has led to a correlation between the size of predators and their prey. Size may also act as a refuge for large prey, for example adult elephants are generally safe from predation by lions, but juveniles are vulnerable.
It has been observed that well-fed predator animals in a lax captivity (for instance, pet or farm animals) will usually differentiate between putative prey animals who are familiar co-inhabitants in the same human area from wild ones outside the area. This interaction can range from peaceful coexistence to close companionship; motivation to ignore the predatory instinct may result from mutual advantage or fear of reprisal from human masters who have made clear that harming co-inhabitants will not be tolerated. Pet cats and pet mice, for example, may live together in the same human residence without incident as companions. Pet cats and pet dogs under human mastership often depend on each other for warmth, companionship, and even protection, particularly in rural areas.
Animals themselves predatory often use their usual methods of attacking prey (often claws and teeth, and at times venom) to inflict or to threaten to inflict grievous injury upon potential predators. Such makes a rattlesnake or a badger a less-than-desirable prey item. The electric eel which uses electrical current to kill prey uses the same current to defend itself against (anacondas, caimans, jaguars, egrets, cougars, giant otters, humans, and dogs) that ordinarily prey upon fish similar to an electric eel in size; the electric eel thus remains an apex predator in an environment rich in predators. Many prey creatures not themselves predatory, such as a zebra, can give one of its usual predators (such as a lion or a spotted hyena) a strong kick that can break the jaw of its enemy and cause eventual starvation.
Mobbing behavior has functions beyond driving the predator away. Mobbing draws attention to the predator, making stealth attacks impossible. Mobbing also plays a critical role in the identification of predators and inter-generational learning about predator identification. Reintroduction of species is often unsuccessful because the established population lacks this cultural knowledge of how to identify local predators. Scientists are exploring ways to train populations to identify and respond to predators before releasing them into the wild.
Mobbing can be an interspecies activity: it is common for birds to respond to mobbing calls of a different species. Many birds will show up at the sight of mobbing and watch and call, but not participate. It should also be noted that some species can be on both ends of a mobbing attack. Crows are frequently mobbed by smaller songbirds as they prey on eggs and young from these birds' nests, but these same crows will cooperate with smaller birds to drive away hawks or larger mammalian predators. On occasion, birds will mob animals that pose no threat.
Black-headed Gulls are one species which aggressively engages intruding predators, such as Carrion Crows. Experiments on this species by Hans Kruuk involved placing hen eggs at intervals from a nesting colony, and recording the percentage of successful predation events as well as the probability of the crow being subjected to mobbing. The results showed decreasing mobbing with increased distance from the nest, which was correlated with increased predation success. Mobbing may function by reducing the predator's ability to locate nests, as predators cannot focus on locating eggs while they are under direct attack.
Once a predator has detected its prey, one would expect it to pursue it. However, it is not always profitable for the predator to do so. Consider the example of a Thomson's Gazelle being spotted by a predator. Giving chase to prey requires a sacrifice in energy. If, however, there is some way the prey species can convey the information that it is unprofitable, energy will be saved by both organisms. Thomson's Gazelles are hunted by species such as lions and cheetahs. When they see the predator approach, they may start to run away, but then slow down and stot. Stotting describes a behavior involving jumping into the air with the legs kept straight and stiff, and the white rear fully visible. Obviously this behavior is maladaptive if they hope to outrun the predator, so it must serve some other purpose. Although other hypotheses have been put forward, evidence supports the proposition that they stot to signal an unprofitable chase. For example, cheetahs abandon more hunts when the gazelle stots, and in the event they do give chase, they are far less likely to make a kill.
Aposematism, where organisms are brightly colored as a warning to predators, is the antithesis of camouflage. Some organisms pose a threat to their predators - for example they may be poisonous, or able to harm them physically. Aposematic coloring involves bright, easily recognizable and unique colors and patterns. Upon being harmed (e.g. stung) by their prey, the appearance in such an organism will be remembered as something to avoid.
Predation appears to have become a major selection pressure shortly before the Cambrian period - around - as evidenced by the almost simultaneous development of calcification in animals and algae, and predation-avoiding burrowing. However, predators had been grazing on micro-organisms since at least .
In much of the world, humans are the largest, best-organized, most cunning, and most powerful predators. The closest rival to humans in those characteristics in most of the world, the dog, is far more likely a collaborator than a competitor or a menace.
Humans are clever exploiters of tools from snares, clubs, spears, fishing gear, firearms to boats and motor vehicles in hunting other animals. Humans even use other animals (dogs, cormorants, and falcons) in hunting or fishing and such non-predatory animals as horses, camels, and elephants in getting approaches to prey.
Humans have reshaped huge expanses of the world as ranges and farms for the raising of livestock, poultry, and [fish farming|fish] to be eaten as meat.
Predators are often the species endangered themselves, especially apex predators who are often in competition with humans. Competition for prey from other species could prove the end of a predator - if their ecological niche overlaps completely with that of another the competitive exclusion principle requires only one can survive. Loss of prey species may lead to coextinction of their predator. In addition, because predators are found in higher trophic levels, they are less abundant and much more vulnerable to extinction.