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Demographic responses to a mild winter in enclosed vole populations

Hoset, Katrine S., Le Galliard, Jean-François, Gundersen, Gry
Population ecology 2009 v.51 no.2 pp. 279-288
Microtus oeconomus, floods, ice, melting, overwintering, predators, snowmelt, social behavior, spring, transponders, voles, winter
Mild winter weather causing snow to melt and ice to accumulate on the ground has been proposed to cause the decreased survival of individuals, and less pronounced cyclicity, of small rodent populations in Fennoscandia. However, detailed data linking ice accumulation to decreased winter survival is lacking. We live-trapped and monitored with passive integrated transponders enclosed populations of root voles (Microtus oeconomus) exposed to different amounts of ice accumulation through a mild winter. We studied how social behaviour and survival responded to snow melt and ice accumulation. Voles avoided ground ice by moving their home ranges, thus increasing home range overlap in enclosed populations experiencing more extensive ice cover. Winter survival was not affected by the amount of ice accumulation, and was only slightly reduced during ice formation in early winter. The lowest survival rates were found at the onset of snow melt in early spring. These results suggest that ice accumulation does not cause lower survival during mild winters, probably because plastic social behaviour enables root voles to reduce the negative effects of varying winter weather on survival. The mechanisms for lower survival during mild winters may operate during spring and be related to spring floods or increased susceptibility to predators.