Wolves modulate soil nutrient heterogeneity and foliar nitrogen by configuring the distribution of ungulate carcasses

Ecology. 2009 Nov;90(11):3159-67. doi: 10.1890/09-0292.1.


Mechanistic links between top terrestrial predators and biogeochemical processes remain poorly understood. Here we demonstrate that large carnivores configure landscape heterogeneity through prey carcass distribution. A 50-year record composed of > 3600 moose carcasses from Isle Royale National Park, Michigan, USA, showed that wolves modulate heterogeneity in soil nutrients, soil microbes, and plant quality by clustering prey carcasses over space. Despite being well utilized by predators, moose carcasses resulted in elevated soil macronutrients and microbial biomass, shifts in soil microbial composition, and elevated leaf nitrogen for at least 2-3 years at kill sites. Wolf-killed moose were deposited in some regions of the study landscape at up to 12x the rate of deposition in other regions. Carcass density also varied temporally, changing as much as 19-fold in some locations during the 50-year study period. This variation arises, in part, directly from variation in wolf hunting behavior. This study identifies a top terrestrial predator as a mechanism generating landscape heterogeneity, demonstrating reciprocal links between large carnivore behavior and ecosystem function.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Deer / physiology*
  • Feeding Behavior / physiology*
  • Nitrogen / chemistry*
  • Nitrogen / metabolism
  • Soil / analysis*
  • Wolves / physiology*


  • Soil
  • Nitrogen