The context dependence of non-consumptive predator effects

Aaron J. Wirsing, Michael R. Heithaus, Joel S. Brown, Burt P. Kotler, Oswald J. Schmitz

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

81 Scopus citations


Non-consumptive predator effects (NCEs) are now widely recognised for their capacity to shape ecosystem structure and function. Yet, forecasting the propagation of these predator-induced trait changes through particular communities remains a challenge. Accordingly, focusing on plasticity in prey anti-predator behaviours, we conceptualise the multi-stage process by which predators trigger direct and indirect NCEs, review and distil potential drivers of contingencies into three key categories (properties of the prey, predator and setting), and then provide a general framework for predicting both the nature and strength of direct NCEs. Our review underscores the myriad factors that can generate NCE contingencies while guiding how research might better anticipate and account for them. Moreover, our synthesis highlights the value of mapping both habitat domains and prey-specific patterns of evasion success (‘evasion landscapes’) as the basis for predicting how direct NCEs are likely to manifest in any particular community. Looking ahead, we highlight two key knowledge gaps that continue to impede a comprehensive understanding of non-consumptive predator–prey interactions and their ecosystem consequences; namely, insufficient empirical exploration of (1) context-dependent indirect NCEs and (2) the ways in which direct and indirect NCEs are shaped interactively by multiple drivers of context dependence.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)113-129
Number of pages17
JournalEcology Letters
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2021


  • Anti-predator behaviour
  • contingency
  • escape
  • evasion landscape
  • habitat domain
  • hunting mode
  • predation risk
  • predator–prey interactions
  • risk effects
  • top-down effects
  • trade-offs

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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