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The effects of red fox scent on winter activity patterns of suburban wildlife: evaluating predator-prey interactions and the importance of groundhog burrows in promoting biodiversity

Abstract

During winter, prey species in suburban areas of the northeastern United States must consider trade-offs in maximizing survival while they are simultaneously constrained by predators and climatic conditions associated with winter such as snow and low temperatures. Many mammalian prey mitigate the physiological stress from the cold by taking refuge in burrows. Some have also developed olfactory sensitivity to predator scent cues as they attempt to avoid predation in the landscape of fear and co-evolutionary arms race between predators and prey. The Eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) is one of these species that both uses burrows in winter and is sensitive to scents. However, despite the importance of cottontails in the diet of Red foxes (Vulpes vulpes), one of their major predators, little is known about scent cues that cottontails use to detect foxes. Eastern cottontails and other suburban wildlife that occupied burrows dug by Groundhogs near Ithaca, New York, USA were exposed to scent wicks treated with Red fox urine during the winter of 2017–2018 to determine if the frequency of burrow use would decrease because of a perceived heightened risk of predation. We observed no response to the predator odor by cottontails and the other burrow-utilizing species. This lack of a behavioral response by prey may be due to the attenuation of fear in suburban environments. A surprising variety of mammalian and avian taxa (n = 22) were recorded at burrows, including Striped skunks, mice, Domestic cats, Virginia opossums, Bobcats, White-tailed deer, Weasels, a Coyote, and a Gray fox. Surprisingly we did not observe a single Red fox, for whom intraspecific scent cues are also important. We also documented daily patterns of activity around burrows of the five most commonly observed taxa. Our investigation reveals that Groundhogs are notable ecosystem engineers whose burrows function as important landscape features and local hotspots of biodiversity during the winter in a suburban ecosystem.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank M. Ashdown for field technical help, L. Johnson at the Cornell Statistical Consulting Unit for help with the statistical analysis, and two anonymous reviewers for their comments that helped improve this manuscript. We would also like to thank the Morley family, the Morley Student Research Fund, and the Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Alumni Association for the grants that supported this research.

Funding

This research was supported by three undergraduate research grants by the Morley family and the Morley Student Research Fund, and the Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Alumni Association.

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Correspondence to Jeremy D. Pustilnik.

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All work was approved by Cornell University Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee Protocol Number 2017–0123.

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Pustilnik, J.D., Searle, J.B. & Curtis, P.D. The effects of red fox scent on winter activity patterns of suburban wildlife: evaluating predator-prey interactions and the importance of groundhog burrows in promoting biodiversity. Urban Ecosyst 24, 529–547 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11252-020-01056-5

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11252-020-01056-5

Keywords

  • Behavioral ecology
  • Predator-prey
  • Landscape ecology
  • Landscape of fear
  • Sensory ecology
  • Ecosystem engineering
  • Olfaction
  • Winter
  • Red fox
  • Carnivore
  • Burrows