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On co-existence, foraging strategy and the biogeography of weasels and stoats (Mustela nivalis and M. erminea) in Britain

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Summary

Mustela nivalis and M. erminea, two sympatric species of weasels of superficially similar appearance and habits, have different breeding and foraging strategies associated with the difference in their body size. M. nivalis is more efficient in exploiting small rodent prey, and can breed rapidly to take immediate advantage of rodent peaks, but is vulnerable to local extinction during rodent declines. M. erminea has more generalized food habits, and is the larger and probably the dominant species, but is limited by delayed implantation to producing only one litter a year. M. nivalis is therefore superior in exploitation competition, and erminea in interference competition. We offer the hypothesis that the co-existence of the two species is permitted by a balance of these competitive advantages determined, at a given time or place, by the heterogeneity of the environment and the distribution of the prey fauna. We use this hypothesis to explain cases where co-existence has either broken down or is not recorded (the results of simultaneous introductions to New Zealand and Terschelling Island, and of myxomatosis in Britain, and the distribution of nivalis and Erminea on the offshore islands of Britain). We argue that the diversity and size distribution of the prey fauna of an island (which are both related to its area and isolation) are important in deciding the species and size of mustelids surviving there; for example, we suggest that nivalis was present in Ireland in immediate post-glacial times but became extinct with the lemmings.

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King, C.M., Moors, P.J. On co-existence, foraging strategy and the biogeography of weasels and stoats (Mustela nivalis and M. erminea) in Britain. Oecologia 39, 129–150 (1979). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00348064

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