Wood mouse population dynamics: Interplay among seed abundance seasonality, shrub cover and wild boar interference

Sunyer P., Muñoz A., Mazerolle M.J., Bonal R., Espelta J.M. (2016) Wood mouse population dynamics: Interplay among seed abundance seasonality, shrub cover and wild boar interference. Mammalian Biology. 81: 372-379.
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Doi: 10.1016/j.mambio.2016.03.001

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Small rodents play a key role in forest ecosystems as common prey, but also as prevalent seed consumers and dispersers. Hence, there is a great interest in disentangling the factors involved in their population dynamics. We conducted an intensive 2-year field study to test the relative role of seasonality in seed abundance, shrub cover and wild boar interference on the population dynamics of wood mice, Apodemus sylvaticus, in a Mediterranean oak forest. Wood mice demographic parameters varied strongly with the seasonal variations in acorn availability on the ground. Mice survival and abundance dropped drastically during summer, the period of acorn scarcity, but rose again in autumn when acorn-fall began. Specifically, female abundance was associated with the temporal changes in acorn availability on the ground, but were randomly distributed in space whereas males showed a spatially aggregated pattern during the acorn-abundant seasons (autumn-winter). In contrast to studies conducted in sparse oak forests in drier environments, spatial variability in shrub cover and wild boar foraging activity did not affect directly the population dynamics of wood mice. This could be due to the presence of an abundant shrub layer and a closed canopy in our forest that enhance environmental conditions and provides shelter against predators and ungulates. Our study highlights that the relative importance of environmental factors and intraguild competition on rodent dynamics may be highly context-dependent, varying greatly among different sites. We suggest that the relationships between acorn dispersers and oaks are more reciprocal than previously considered. © 2016 Published by Elsevier GmbH.

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The interplay among acorn abundance and rodent behavior drives the spatial pattern of seedling recruitment in mature Mediterranean oak forests

Sunyer P., Boixadera E., Munoz A., Bonal R., Espelta J.M. (2015) The interplay among acorn abundance and rodent behavior drives the spatial pattern of seedling recruitment in mature Mediterranean oak forests. PLoS ONE. 10: 0-0.
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Doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0129844

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The patterns of seedling recruitment in animal-dispersed plants result from the interactions among environmental and behavioral variables. However, we know little on the contribution and combined effect of both kinds of variables. We designed a field study to assess the interplay between environment (vegetation structure, seed abundance, rodent abundance) and behavior (seed dispersal and predation by rodents, and rooting by wild boars), and their contribution to the spatial patterns of seedling recruitment in a Mediterranean mixed-oak forest. In a spatially explicit design, we monitored intensively all environmental and behavioral variables in fixed points at a small spatial scale from autumn to spring, as well as seedling emergence and survival. Our results revealed that the spatial patterns of seedling emergence were strongly related to acorn availability on the ground, but not by a facilitationeffect of vegetation cover. Rodents changed seed shadows generated by mother trees by dispersing most seeds from shrubby to open areas, but the spatial patterns of acorn dispersal/predation had no direct effect on recruitment. By contrast, rodents had a strong impact on recruitment as pilferers of cached seeds. Rooting by wild boars also reduced recruitment by reducing seed abundance, but also by changing rodent's behavior towards higher consumption of acorns in situ. Hence, seed abundance and the foraging behavior of scatter-hoarding rodents and wild boars are driving the spatial patterns of seedling recruitment in this mature oak forest, rather than vegetation features. The contribution of vegetation to seedling recruitment (e.g. facilitation by shrubs) may be context dependent, having a little role in closed forests, or being overridden by directed seed dispersal from shrubby to open areas. We warn about the need of using broad approaches that consider the combined action of environment and behavior to improve our knowledge on the dynamics of natural regeneration in forests. © 2015 Sunyer et al.

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Seeding phenology influences wood mouse seed choices: The overlooked role of timing in the foraging decisions by seed-dispersing rodents

Sunyer P., Espelta J.M., Bonal R., Munoz A. (2014) Seeding phenology influences wood mouse seed choices: The overlooked role of timing in the foraging decisions by seed-dispersing rodents. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology. 68: 1205-1213.
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Doi: 10.1007/s00265-014-1731-x

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Scatter-hoarding rodents influence the population dynamics of plants by acting as seed predators and dispersers. Therefore, rodent foraging preferences for certain seed traits (species, size, condition) have been extensively studied. However, to what extent these preferences are fixed or they track the temporal changes on seed characteristics due to phenological differences has been seldom explored. We studied the temporal variability in seed preferences by wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus), according to phenological changes in seed characteristics of two co-occurring oaks (Quercus ilex and Quercus pubescens). The phenology of acorn abundance and the acorn predation/dispersal patterns by rodents were monitored over an entire seeding season. Results revealed temporal changes in rodent preferences for acorns of the two oaks, matching their different seeding phenology (earlier in Q. pubescens and later in Q. ilex). On the other hand, whatever the species considered, rodents preferred larger and sound acorns along the entire season, although the dispersal of infested ones increased slightly during the peaks of acorn drop. The observed influence of seeding phenology on seed choices by rodents warns about inferring definite conclusions regarding their foraging behavior when arising from short-term experiments. Indeed, this study reveals that foraging preferences may be highly dynamic and context-dependent for some seed traits (e.g., species and condition), rather than fixed behavioral patterns. Plasticity in rodent foraging choices may allow them to successfully exploit different oaks with uncoupled seeding phenologies, while potentially favoring their coexistence. © 2014 Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg.

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The ecology of seed dispersal by small rodents: A role for predator and conspecific scents

Sunyer P., Muñoz A., Bonal R., Espelta J.M. (2013) The ecology of seed dispersal by small rodents: A role for predator and conspecific scents. Functional Ecology. 27: 1313-1321.
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Doi: 10.1111/1365-2435.12143

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Seed-caching rodents play a key role in the ecology of seed dispersal by not only consuming but also dispersing seeds. Rodent foraging behaviour is usually framed within optimal models, which predict that their decisions should maximize food intake and minimize foraging costs. Although predation risk and seed pilferage by conspecifics have been envisaged as two potential costs, their relevance for seed-caching behaviour and seed dispersal has barely been addressed. To test the effect of predation and pilferage risk on the patterns of seed predation/dispersal by rodents, we performed a field experiment using a tri-trophic-level model (plant-mice-carnivore; Quercus spp-Apodemus sylvaticus-Genetta genetta) and the scents of the predator and conspecifics as direct cues. The behaviour of mice was analysed with video cameras set for continuous recording on consecutive nights, and we used tagged acorns to assess the patterns of acorn predation and dispersal. Our results revealed that rodents were able to discriminate between the scents of genet and conspecifics and modified their seed dispersal behaviour accordingly. Mice spent more time 'sniffing' in rodent cages than in genet cages, where they displayed more 'vigilance and freezing' behaviours. In sites with mice scents, acorns were dispersed at shorter distances and were less predated. Conversely, in sites with genet scents acorn removal was delayed. These results show that chemosensory information on predators and conspecifics influences the foraging decisions of seed-caching rodents over short spatial and temporal scales. This might entail cascading effects on the regeneration of plants. In sites where rodents perceive the risk of predation, inefficient foraging behaviour may result in less successful seed dispersal. Conversely, the detection of conspecific scents may increase dispersal efficiency and seedling recruitment. Ultimately, the relationships between two distant levels in trophic webs (plants-carnivores) appear intricate, since carnivores may affect seed dispersal by changing the foraging behaviour of their prey (the seed disperser). This indirect relationship should be considered as a new dimension of the ecology of seed dispersal by small rodents. © 2013 British Ecological Society.

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