Is there direct and delayed density dependent variation in population structure in a temperate European cyclic vole population?


  • Pablo Inchausti,

  • David Carslake,

  • Carole Attié,

  • Vincent Bretagnolle

P. Inchausti (, D. Carslake, C. Attié and V. Bretagnolle, Centre d'Etudes Biologiques de Chizé, FR–79360 Villiers en Bois, France. Present address for DC: Univ. of Warwick, Gibbet Hill Road, Coventry, CV4 7AL, UK.


Population structure, in terms of the body mass, condition, sex and reproductive status of individuals, has been found to vary in phase with population density in cyclic populations of microtine rodents. Because sustained population cycles involve delayed density dependent changes in the population growth rate, we would expect at least some life history traits also to depend on past densities. Detailed, long-term studies of changes in vole life history traits are however few, and are largely restricted to northern Europe. In view of the uncertainty as to whether the cyclic microtine populations of western Europe represent the same phenomenon as those of northern Europe, we studied temporal variation in the structure of a clearly cyclic population of the common vole Microtus arvalis Pallas, in the cereal plains of mid-western France. Our data set contains seasonal, individual-level data from long-term, large-scale trapping covering four entire population cycles. We found considerable cyclic variation in population structure in spring (April), but less so in summer (June). In spring of post-peak years, animals were of low body weight and body condition (particularly females), litter sizes were smaller and there was a reduction in the proportion of breeders. All of these could be proximal drivers of increased mortality rates, or decreased birth rates, contributing to the population declines. Few life history traits, however, showed direct density dependent variation, and none of the traits studied here showed delayed density dependence. We have shown declines in the fecundity and body condition of voles from a western European population that coincides with, and may be a proximal cause of, cyclic declines in population density. Closer attention to proximal causes, by which ecological processes drive cycles, could clarify the extent to which microtine cycles across Europe represent a single phenomenon.