Mechanisms of population limitation in the southern red-backed vole in conifer forests of western North America: Insights from a long-term study

Thomas P. Sullivan, Druscilla S. Sullivan, Rudy Boonstra, Charles J. Krebs, Alan Vyse

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Citations (Scopus)


Our goals were to characterize multiannual population changes of the southern red-backed vole (Myodes gapperi) to determine potential cycling behavior, and to specify the possible causes of these changes. We analyzed a detailed, 21-year record of changes in abundance of M. gapperi in late successional coniferous forest in southern British Columbia, Canada, from 1995 to 2015. We evaluated 3 hypotheses (H), namely that population changes are related to: (H 1) changes in food supply from cone crops of coniferous trees; (H 2) changes in forest habitat associated with beetle-killed lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) trees; and (H 3) territorial reorganization leading to breeding season declines in abundance. There were 3 cyclic population fluctuations (6- to 7-year periodicity) where red-backed voles reached mean fall numbers of 19-25, 15-16, and 26-27 per ha, respectively; in contrast, only 2-5 voles per ha occurred during population lows. Breeding season declines in abundance occurred in 17 of 21 years, with particularly precipitous drops ranging from 49% to 69% loss of voles. M. gapperi had more successful pregnancies, juvenile recruits, and adult recruits in the high than in the low population years. Mean index of early juvenile survival was 22% higher in low than high population years. Mean summer survival (58%) was consistently lower than that in winter (83%). Population increases were positively related to cone crops of 3 coniferous tree species. Thus, H 1 was partially supported in 3 of 4 seedfall events. Positive changes in forest habitat, resulting from seed rain as a food supply and fallen debris from beetle-killed pine trees as cover, may have supported high numbers of voles in 2011-2012 (H 2). A spring reorganization event limited the number of breeding animals by density-dependent inhibition of maturation and survival of juvenile voles, and led to breeding season declines (H 3). Rigorous field experiments are needed to test these hypotheses and their interactions as mechanisms driving population change.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1367-1378
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Mammalogy
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 3 Oct 2017
Externally publishedYes


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