, Volume 67, Issue 3, pp 394-402

Gradients in density variations of small rodents: the importance of latitude and snow cover

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Summary

Microtine rodents are known to show extreme population variations (cycles) but non-cyclic populations have also been recognized during recent years. The cyclic populations have been widely thought to be regulated by intrinsic mechanisms. However, such predictions for cyclic populations are usually not applicable to non-cyclic ones and extrinsic factors may have to be included in any explanation.

A hypothesis that the degree of fluctuations in small rodent numbers is related to the sustainable number of generalist predators was tested on mainly literature data by computing “indices of cyclicity” for local populations. These indices were related to latitude and snow cover (two measures) as these variables will affect the amount of alternative prey available for these generalists. Within Fennoscandia such indices for Clethrionomys glareolus and Microtus agrestis were clearly positively related to latitude and snow cover. The fraction of populations with summer declines in numbers, characterizing highly cyclic populations, increased in the same way. Cyclicity indices in Great Britain were similar to those in southern Fennoscandia, both areas being poor in snow, but were higher at the same latitudes in eastern Europe with more snow. Indices of density variations were generally low in North American Clethrionomys species and very variable in Microtus species.

The gradients observed and differences between continents are interpreted as due to microtine-vegetation interactions in northern European areas poor in generalist predators but with important small mustelid predation, and to similar snowshoe hare-vegetation interactions in mainly Canada-Alaska, where small rodents may serve as alternative prey for numerically fluctuating hare predators, at least in the forests. Western European microtine populations, and probably many others, seem to be regulated by generalist predators.