Birds of prey in any of three senses. In ecology, predation describes a biological interaction where a predator organism feeds on another living organism known as prey. In ecology, predation describes a biological interaction where a predator organism feeds on another living organism or organisms known as prey. 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.
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. 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, but still consistently cause its direct death.
The unifying theme in all classifications of predation is the predator lowering the fitness of its prey, or put another way, it reduces its prey's chances of survival, reproduction, or both. Ways of classifying predation surveyed here include grouping by trophic level or diet, by specialization, and by the nature of their interaction with prey. Classification of predators by the extent to which they feed on and interact with their prey is one way ecologists may wish to categorize the different types of predation. Instead of focusing on what they eat, this system classifies predators by the way in which they eat, and the general nature of the interaction between predator and prey species. Two factors are considered here: How close the predator and prey are physically (in the latter two cases the term prey may be replaced with host). Additionally, whether or not the prey are directly killed by the predator is considered, with the first and last cases involving certain death.
Among predators there is a large degree of specialization. Many predators specialize in hunting only one species of prey. Others are more opportunistic and will kill and eat almost anything (examples: humans, leopards, and dogs). The specialists are usually particularly well suited to capturing their preferred prey. The prey in turn, are often equally suited to escape that predator. This is called an evolutionary arms race and tends to keep the populations of both species in equilibrium. Some predators specialize in certain classes of prey, not just single species. Almost all will switch to other prey (with varying degrees of success) when the preferred target is extremely scarce, and they may also resort to scavenging or a herbivorous diet if possible.
Predators may increase the biodiversity of communities by preventing a single species from becoming dominant. Such predators are known as keystone species and may have a profound influence on the balance of organisms in a particular ecosystem. Introduction or removal of this predator, or changes in its population density, can have drastic cascading effects on the equilibrium of many other populations in the ecosystem. For example, grazers of a grassland may prevent a single dominant species from taking over. 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.