Wildlife Research Wildlife Research Society
Ecology, management and conservation in natural and modified habitats

Does risk of predation influence population dynamics? Evidence from cyclic decline of snowshoe hares

D. S. Hik

Wildlife Research 22(1) 115 - 129
Published: 1995


Like most heavily preyed-upon animals, snowshoe hares (Lepus americanus) have to balance conflicting demands of obtaining food at a high rate and avoiding predators. Adopting foraging behaviours to minimise predation risk may also lead to a decline in condition, and hence fecundity. Predictions of three hypotheses (condition constraint hypothesis, predator-avoidance constraint hypothesis, predation-sensitive foraging (PSF) hypothesis) were tested by comparing changes in the survival and condition of snowshoe hares on four experimental areas in winter during a cyclic peak and decline (1989–1993) near Kluane Lake, Yukon, Canada, where (i) predation risk was reduced by excluding terrestrial predators (FENCE), (ii) food supply was supplemented with rabbit chow ad libitum (FOOD), (iii) these two treatments were combined (FENCE+FOOD), and (iv) an unmanipulated CONTROL was used.

Different pattems of survival and changes in body mass were observed in the presence and absence of terrestrial predators. On the CONTROL area, female body mass and fecundity declined, even though sufficient winter forage was apparently available in all years. A similar decrease in body mass was observed on the FOOD treatment, but only during the third year of the population decline. In contrast, female body mass remained high throughout the decline in the absence of terrestrial predators in the FENCE+FOOD and FENCE treatments. Winter survival declined on CONTROL and FENCE areas during the first year of the population decline (1991), but remained higher on FOOD until 1992 and FENCE+FOOD until 1993. These results generally supported the PSF hypothesis where terrestrial predators were present (CONTROL and FOOD grids). Where terrestrial predators were absent (FENCE and FENCE+FOOD), the results supported the alternative condition constraint hypothesis. The evidence suggests that a cascade of sublethal behavioural and physiological effects associated with increased predation risk contribute to the population decline and delayed recovery of cyclic low-phase populations of snowshoe hares.


© CSIRO 1995

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