Insights into population ecology from long-term studies of red grouse Lagopus lagopus scoticus

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Summary

  1. Long-term studies have been the backbone of population ecology. The red grouse Lagopus lagopus scoticus is one species that has contributed widely to this field since the 1950s. This paper reviews the trajectory and profound impact that these studies have had.

  2. Red grouse research has combined long-term studies of marked individuals with demographic studies over wide geographical areas and replicated individual- and population-level manipulations.

  3. A main focus has been on understanding the causes of population cycles in red grouse, and in particular the relative importance of intrinsic (behaviour) and extrinsic (climate, food limitation and parasite) mechanisms.

  4. Separate studies conducted in different regions initially proposed either the nematode parasite Trichostrongylus tenuis or changes in male aggressiveness in autumn as drivers of population cycles.

  5. More recent experiments suggest that parasites are not a necessary cause for cycles and have highlighted that behavioural and parasite-mediated mechanisms are interrelated. Long-term experiments show that parasites and aggressiveness interact.

  6. Two outstanding questions remain to be tested experimentally. First, what intrinsic mechanism causes temporal variation in patterns of male aggressiveness? The current favoured mechanism is related to patterns of kin structuring although there are alternative hypotheses. Second, how do the dual, interacting mechanisms, affect population dynamics?

  7. Red grouse studies have had an important impact on the field of population ecology, in particular through highlighting: (1) the impact of parasites on populations; (2) the role of intrinsic mechanisms in cyclic dynamics and (3) the need to consider multiple, interacting mechanisms.

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