In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sublethal Predation

  • Introduction
  • Key Works
  • Evolutionary and Theoretical Perspectives
  • Ecology of Sublethal Predation
  • Environmental Impacts on Sublethal Predation
  • Sublethal Predation in the Fossil Record
  • Sublethal Predation among Terrestrial and Freshwater Invertebrates
  • Sublethal Predation among Vertebrates

Ecology Sublethal Predation
Sara Lindsay
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0247


Sublethal predation is distinguished from lethal predation by survival of the prey. Predators may injure or only partially consume prey, and such injury and loss of biomass can influence the condition, behavior, growth, reproduction and ultimate survival of the prey. Sublethal predation is widespread among terrestrial, aquatic, and marine habitats, and the fossil record is replete with examples of trace fossils, scarred appendages, drilled and repaired shells that have been attributed to sublethal predation. Some animals cast off body parts in response to attempted or threatened predation (e.g., lizard tails, crab claws, brittlestar arms), and such autotomy has costs and benefits for individuals and influences ecological interactions. Regeneration, or regrowth of lost tissues, is a common response to injury caused by sublethal predation, autotomy, and other sources, although the ability to regenerate is highly variable across taxa. Considerable research has been focused on understanding the mechanisms and evolution of regeneration and this has been informed by the many reports of regeneration by taxonomically diverse animals as a response to sublethal predation. Sublethal predation has several synonyms. It has been described as grazing, browsing or cropping, especially with reference to plants, but also with reference to marine infauna; as incomplete predation, often in reference to fossils; as partial predation; and as unsuccessful predation. In this bibliography, parasitism is not considered sublethal predation, although some interesting examples of interacting effects of parasitism and sublethal predation will be discussed. Just as predation is a significant selective force, sublethal predation can have profound impacts on the ecology and evolution of organisms. This bibliography will highlight the evolutionary context of sublethal predation, including evidence for sublethal predation in the fossil record, its role in ecological interactions, ways in which environmental factors influence sublethal predation and organisms’ responses to it, and finally, provide an introduction to research on sublethal predation among major taxa that experience it. The works cited were selected to provide examples from multiple perspectives and to highlight both foundational work and more recent investigations.

Key Works

Sublethal predation has been considered from varied perspectives and there is no single comprehensive review of the topic. Although this bibliography will focus on animals, sublethal predation is very common among plants, where it is known as herbivory or grazing, and entry points to that literature include Crawley 1989, a review of insect herbivores on plant populations, McNaughton 1985, a monograph on the ecology of grazing systems, as well as more recent works like Hester, et al. 2006 examining the impact of large herbivores on plant communities, and Maron and Crone 2006 which reviews population-level consequences of herbivory. Indeed, researchers investigating sublethal predation in animals have sometimes used the theory around plant-herbivore interactions to ground their work. Vermeij 1982 provides an important introduction and evolutionary perspective discussing how unsuccessful predation drives evolution of antipredator characteristics. Klompmaker, et al. 2019 is a recent review of data documenting sublethal predation in the marine fossil record, and Lindsay 2010 documents the widespread occurrence and frequency of injury among extant marine benthic invertebrates, much of which occurs due to sublethal predation. From a predator perspective, early work like Edwards and Steele 1968 and DeVlas 1979 established the importance of sublethal predation by juvenile fish on marine invertebrates and initiated considerable work investigating the role of sublethal predation in trophic dynamics.

  • Crawley, M. J. 1989. Insect herbivores and plant population dynamics. Annual Review of Entomology 34:531–564.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.en.34.010189.002531

    This review of research conducted in the 1980s provides an excellent overview of the ways that insect herbivores impact individual plants, noting that different types of herbivory (seed-feeding, foliage feeding, plant-sucking) have varied impacts on plant population dynamics. The conclusion that plants have more effect on herbivore populations than herbivores on plant populations sets up an interesting comparison regarding impacts of sublethal predation on animal populations.

  • DeVlas, J. 1979. Annual food-intake by plaice and flounder in a tidal flat area in the Dutch Wadden Sea, with special reference to consumption of regenerating parts of macrobenthic prey. Netherlands Journal of Sea Research 13.1: 117–153.

    DOI: 10.1016/0077-7579(79)90037-1

    A classic reference estimating the contribution of regenerating parts of bivalves and worms to food webs in marine soft-sediment and coastal ecosystems. Analyses of fish gut contents demonstrate that parts of bottom-dwelling invertebrates made up 33 percent by weight of the plaice and flounder diet (2.1 g m-2 y-1); most of this was comprised of posterior segments of the lugworm Arenicola marina. Includes seasonal data on diet.

  • Edwards, R., and J. H. Steele. 1968. The ecology of 0-group plaice and common dabs at Loch Ewe Scotland I. Population and food. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology 2.3: 215–238.

    DOI: 10.1016/0022-0981(68)90017-8

    Compares diet of juvenile plaice and dab during their first year of life, documenting that both feed on regenerable portions of bivalves and polychaetes, as well as seasonal and species-specific differences in consumption rates of bivalve siphons and polychaete tentacles. The ratio of bivalve siphons to polychaete parts in fish stomachs (as numbers per hundred stomachs containing food) was ~0.5:1 in common dabs, and 1.4:1 in plaice.

  • Hester, A. J., M. Bergman, G. R. Iason, and J. Moen. 2006. Impacts of large herbivores on plant community structure and dynamics. In Larger herbivore ecology, ecosystem dynamics and conservation. Edited by K. Dannell, R. Bergstrom, P. Duncan, and J. Pastor, 97–141. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This review of the impacts by large herbivores focuses on shrubs and woodlands; it distinguishes between impacts of grazing, trampling, and bark stripping and reviews mechanisms by which plants respond to or avoid sublethal predation including physical and chemical avoidance and defenses, as well as impacts on species diversity. Also discusses the difference between tolerance and compensation responses, which has interesting implications for studies of the evolution of regeneration in animals.

  • Klompmaker, A., P. H. Kelley, D. Chattopadhyay, J. Clements, J. W. Huntley, and M. Kowalewski. 2019. Predation in the marine fossil record: Studies, data, recognition, environmental factors, and behavior. Earth-Science Reviews 194:472–520.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.earscirev.2019.02.020

    The authors compiled a database containing more than three thousand records documenting the evidence and occurrence of predation in the marine fossil record to support this review; drill holes are the most frequently reported evidence of predation in the fossil record, followed by repair scars. Section 3.4 addresses “failed predation” as evidenced in the fossil record by incomplete or healed drill holes in molluscs, repair scars in various phyla, and arm regeneration in echinoderms.

  • Lindsay, S. M. 2010. Frequency of injury and the ecology of regeneration in marine benthic invertebrates. Integrative and Comparative Biology 50.4: 479–493.

    DOI: 10.1093/icb/icq099

    Highly cited review documenting the frequency of injury among marine benthic invertebrates, with data from more than 230 species. The synthesis emphasizes that injury is a common event across many taxa, and (sublethal) predation is a frequent source of injury. Also identifies spatial and temporal variations in injury, as well as the ecological significance of injury. The supplementary material details species-specific frequency and sources of injury reported in reviewed studies.

  • Maron, J. L., and E. Crone. 2006. Herbivory: Effects on plant abundance, distribution and population growth. Proceedings: Biological Sciences 2731601:2575–2584.

    DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2006.3587

    Many studies document the impact of sublethal predation by herbivores on individual plants, but this review examines that impact at the population level, exploring whether different types of consumers have different impacts, how plant life history contributes to their vulnerability to herbivory, and how herbivory influences plant abundance and distribution. Although limited in its scope, the review supports general conclusion that invertebrate and vertebrate consumers significantly reduce density-independent population growth of plants.

  • McNaughton, S. J. 1985. Ecology of a grazing ecosystem: The Serengeti. Ecological Monographs 55.3: 260–294.

    DOI: 10.2307/1942578

    This classic monograph describes the ecology of grasslands and their grazers in the Serengeti based on research conducted from 1974 to 1979, a time when populations of grazing wildebeest, zebra, Thomson’s gazelle, and topi collectively numbered more than 2 million individuals. Documents impact of grazing on above ground biomass of plants, diet preferences of grazers and how those vary with rainfall/season, and the relationship between grazing resistance and plant biodiversity.

  • Vermeij, G. J. 1982. Unsuccessful predation and evolution. The American Naturalist 120.6: 701–720.

    DOI: 10.1086/284025

    In this key paper, Vermeij argues that unsuccessful (i.e., sublethal) predation drives the evolution of antipredator characteristics, noting that if predators were always successful, no individuals would survive to reproduce. The discussion of the “ecology of failure,” provides data on predation success by predators from insects to birds and mammals, and reveals the widespread nature of unsuccessful predation.

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