The Editors of Journal of Animal Ecology are pleased to announce that the 2009 Elton Prize has been awarded to Michael Sheriff for his co-paper with Charles J. Krebs and Rudy Boonstra, The sensitive hare: sub lethal effects of predator stress on reproduction in snowshoe hares (Journal of Animal Ecology, Volume 78, Issue 6, pages 1249–1258).
The Editors chose Michael and this paper for several reasons. It deals with a novel and interesting topic; the ‘sublethal’ effects of predation on the fitness of prey, in particular reproductive outputs, and the role that physiological stress might play in mediating the effect of predation risk on reproductive investment and performance.
It is an excellent blend of observational and experimental data in what could be called a characteristic ecological study. More importantly, it is an excellent study of trophic interactions and has broader implications beyond boreal food webs to understanding indirect effects of predators on prey dynamics in general.
This is the first study in a free-ranging population of mammals to show that elevated, predator-induced, cortisol concentrations in individual females caused a decline in their reproductive output measured both by number and quality of their offspring.
Michael’s research interests lie in how physiological processes shape the ecology of free-ranging animals and vice versa; particularly how the sublethal effects of predation and food availability affect stress physiology, which in turn impacts on behaviour and population dynamics. For his PhD he studied the cause of the low phase of the snowshoe hare population cycle. Through his findings, he proposes that the low phase of the cycle is caused by the indirect effects of predation risk. These indirect effects act by altering the physiological and neurological make-up of snowshoe hares (the hypothalamus and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis). The inheritance of this maternal stress, through maternal programming of the HPA axis, may cause the offspring’s reproduction to lag behind their environment, resulting in the inability of the hare population to recover immediately following the population decline.
Michael graduated in 2005 from the University of Toronto, Canada and went on to do his PhD at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He will be starting his post-doctoral studies in April 2010 at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks with Dr Brian Barnes. He will continue to study physiological processes in free-ranging animals (arctic ground squirrels).