, Volume 168, Issue 3, pp 601–620 | Cite as

Population dynamics of red-backed voles (Myodes) in North America

  • Rudy Boonstra
  • Charles J. Krebs
Concepts, Reviews and Syntheses


We review the population dynamics of red-backed voles (Myodes species) in North America, the main deciduous and coniferous forest-dwelling microtines on this continent, and compare and contrast their pattern with that of the same or similar species in Eurasia. We identify 7 long-term studies of population changes in Myodes in North America. Using autoregressive and spectral analysis, we found that only 2 of the 7 show 3- to 5-year cycles like those found in some Eurasian populations. There was no relationship between latitude and cycling. The general lack of cyclicity is associated with two key aspects of their demography that act in tandem: first, poor overwinter survival in most years; second, chronically low densities, with irregular outbreak years. Eight factors might explain why some Myodes populations fluctuate in cycles and others fluctuate irregularly, and we review the evidence for each factor: food supplies, nutrients, predation, interspecific competition, disease, weather, spacing behavior and interactive effects. Of these eight, only food supplies appear to be sufficient to explain the differences between cyclic and non-cyclic populations. Irregular fluctuations are the result of pulsed food supplies in the form of berry crops (M. rutilus) or tree seeds (M. gapperi) linked to weather patterns. We argue that, to understand the cause for the patterns in the respective hemispheres, we must know the mechanism(s) driving population change and this must be linked to rigorous field tests. We suggest that a large-scale, year-round feeding experiment should improve overwintering survival, increase standing densities, and flip non-cyclic Myodes populations into cyclic dynamics that would mimic the patterns seen in the cyclic populations found in parts of Eurasia.


Population regulation Population cycles Myodes Winter weather Food shortage Population limitation 



We dedicate this paper to the memory of William (Bill) A. Fuller and of Jerry O. Wolff. Bill and his students worked intensively in the heartland of the boreal forest in the Northwest Territories to elucidate the factors limiting and regulating Myodes populations under the typical, but severe, climatic conditions of these regions. Though only one minor paper of Jerry’s was on a Myodes species (1986 Canadian Field Naturalist 100:186–191), his creativity, ideas, and scientific approach permeated the field of small mammals and have contributed to our understanding of their ecology and evolution, to our own research and thinking, and to that of countless others. We thank S. Elias, J.B. Falls, H. Hentonnen, and J.F. Merritt (dataset VCR99062— for providing original datasets. We thank the numerous people who have collected the vast amounts of field data we have attempted to summarize and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada for financial support.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Biological SciencesUniversity of Toronto ScarboroughTorontoCanada
  2. 2.Department of ZoologyUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada

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