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Potential competition between two top-order predators following a dramatic contraction in the diversity of their prey base

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Two sympatric native top-order predators, the sooty owl (Tyto tenebricosa tenebricosa) and powerful owl (Ninox strenua) coexist throughout much of their range in south-eastern Australia. Following European settlement, however, major changes in resource availability for these predators potentially resulted in increased competition, especially for food. This study examined ecological attributes of both species, including intersexual differences in the sooty owl, potential resource partitioning and whether competition may be occurring. Dietary overlap was high between female sooty owls and powerful owls (0.90), compared to overlap between male sooty owls and powerful owls (0.67), with three mammalian species contributing over 74% of their diets. Sooty and powerful owls coexisted throughout the study region, regularly roosting within the same vegetation types, and in similar locations, although microhabitat differences were apparent. Sooty owls displayed aseasonal breeding, although a peak in fledging in spring coincided with powerful owl breeding. Both species exclusively nested in similar size mountain grey gums (Eucalyptus cypellocarpa), however, hollow characteristics differed slightly. Significant divergence along a single niche dimension was not detected between powerful and sooty owls, as they had similar diets, habitat usage and activity times, potentially resulting in competition. Reproductive output was low for both species, however, the degree to which competitive interactions influenced this remains unknown. To minimise potential competition, longterm feral predator control and improved habitat management is recommended to increase the density and diversity of small terrestrial mammals, as this should result in diversification of the sooty owl diet, reducing dietary overlap with powerful owls.

Affiliations: 1: School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University, 221 Burwood Highway, Burwood, Victoria 3125, Australia


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