, Volume 138, Issue 1, pp 151-159

Breeding suppression in free-ranging grey-sided voles under the influence of predator odour

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Abstract

The breeding suppression hypothesis predicts that females of certain small mammal species will reduce reproduction as a response to the odour of a specialised mammalian predator. This was tested in a field experiment with grey-sided voles ( Clethrionomys rufocanus) during three summer seasons (1997–1999) in the subalpine tundra of northern Norway, which is a natural habitat of this species. In a first phase free-ranging voles in six unfenced 1-ha plots were monitored by live-trapping from June to August each year. In a second phase from August to September, three of the plots were sprayed with weasel ( Mustela nivalis) odour to simulate increased apparent predation risk, while the remaining three plots served as untreated controls. On all plots voles were individually marked with ear tattoos and were regularly live-trapped during the whole breeding season to follow their performance. On the treatment plots the recruitment rate of juveniles did not increase in late summer as it did on the control plots. The proportion of reproductively non-active adult females was significantly higher on the treatment plots for both old and young females. Our results thus verify the breeding suppression hypothesis for the first time under natural conditions. However, the response in overwintered females is in conflict with the original hypothesis because the assumed fitness benefits from breeding delayed until the next season are inaccessible to them. As an alternative explanation we propose a short-term response of reduced activity and interrupted breeding until the predator has exploited and left the feeding patch. Such a “duck and cover” strategy would increase the fitness of females of all age classes when prey habitats are patchy.