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Keywords:

  • body mass;
  • daily energy expenditures;
  • doubly labelled water;
  • survival;
  • winter

Summary

1. The absolute energy needs of small animals are generally lower than those of larger animals. This should drive higher mortality of larger animals, when the environmental conditions deteriorate. However, demonstration of the effect of energy constraints on survivals proved difficult, because the range of body mass within species is generally too small to produce enough variation for studying such an effect. An opportunity for an intraspecific study comes from weasels inhabiting the Białowieża Forest (north-eastern Poland), which are characterized by a threefold variation in body mass.

2. We assumed that in summer larger weasel males are favoured by sexual selection, because they are more successful when competing for mates. We then tested whether they suffer higher mortality in winter, because they have difficulty finding sufficient food to satisfy their energy needs and/or because the additional foraging time would result in increased exposure to predation.

3. We measured daily energy expenditures (DEE) of overwintering weasel males using the doubly labelled water (DLW) technique. We constructed an energetic model predicting how individuals of different size are able to balance their energy budgets feeding on large and small prey while minimizing time spent hunting, thereby reducing their own exposure to predation.

4. The range of body mass in overwintering weasels predicted by our model corresponded very well with the distribution of prey body mass in three different habitats within our study area. Larger individuals were able to compensate for higher food requirements by using habitats with larger prey species than those available to smaller male weasels. This effectively offset the expected negative association between body mass and winter survival predicted from considerations of energy balance.

5. Our results show how energetic constraints affect body mass and spatial segregation of a species at the intra-specific level not only across large geographical ranges, but also within a relatively small area.