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Top‐down limitation of lemmings revealed by experimental reduction of predators

Fauteux, Dominique, Gauthier, Gilles, Berteaux, Dominique
Ecology 2016 v.97 no.11 pp. 3231-3241
Lemmus trimucronatus, adults, birds, demography, females, juveniles, nests, periodicity, population growth, predation, predators, reproduction, rodents, seasonal variation, summer, winter, Nunavut
It is generally recognized that delayed density‐dependence is responsible for cyclic population dynamics. However, it is still uncertain whether a single factor can explain why some rodent populations fluctuate according to a 3–4 yr periodicity. There is increasing evidence that predation may play a role in lemming population cycles, although this effect may vary seasonally. To address this issue, we conducted an experiment where we built a large exclosure (9 ha) to protect brown lemmings (Lemmus trimucronatus) from avian and terrestrial predators. We tested the hypothesis that predation is a limiting factor for lemmings by measuring the demographic consequences of a predator reduction during the growth and peak phases of the cycle. We assessed summer (capture‐mark‐recapture methods) and winter (winter nest sampling) lemming demography on two grids located on Bylot Island, Nunavut, Canada from 2008 to 2015. The predator exclosure became fully effective in July 2013, allowing us to compare demography between the control and experimental grids before and during the treatment. Lemming abundance, survival and proportion of juveniles were similar between the two grids before the treatment. During the predator‐reduction period, summer densities were on average 1.9× higher inside the experimental grid than the control and this effect was greatest for adult females and juveniles (densities 2.4× and 3.4× higher, respectively). Summer survival was 1.6× higher on the experimental grid than the control whereas body mass and proportion of juveniles were also slightly higher. Winter nest densities remained high inside the predator reduction grid following high summer abundance, but declined on the control grid. These results confirm that predation limits lemming population growth during the summer due to its negative impact on survival. However, it is possible that in winter, predation may interact with other factors affecting reproduction and ultimately population cycles.