Predation as a probable mechanism relating winter weather to population dynamics in a North American porcupine population
An abundance index of an eastern Quebec population of North American porcupines (Erethizon dorsatum) has cycled with superimposed periodicities of 11 and 22 years from 1868 to 2000. This cycle closely followed 11- and 22-year cycles in solar irradiance and local weather (e.g., winter precipitation and spring temperature), generating the hypothesis that solar activity may affect porcupine abundance through effects on local weather. We investigated the mechanisms linking porcupine abundance to local weather conditions using a 6-year study (2000–2005) involving individual mark-recapture, radio tracking, seasonal survival analyses and identification of mortality causes. Summer (May–August) survival was high and constant over the study period, whereas winter (August–May) survival was lower and varied during the duration of our study. Variations in local winter precipitation explained 89% of the variation in winter survival. Porcupine predation rates appeared strongly related to snow conditions; 95% of depredated porcupines were killed when snow was covering the ground, and predation rates were higher in years with increased winter precipitation. Our data thus support the hypothesis that changes in predation rates under different snow conditions were the mechanism relating climate to porcupine population dynamics, via modifications of the local predator–prey interactions and impacts on porcupine winter survival. Our study adds to the growing body of evidence supporting an effect of climate on predator–prey processes. Also, it identifies one possible mechanism involved in the relationship between solar irradiance and porcupine population cycles observed at this study site over a 130-year period.