The predation risks of interspecific eavesdropping: weasel–vole interactions


N. K. Hughes, Australian Wildlife Conservancy, North Head Sanctuary, Sydney 2095, Australia. E-mail:


Competing species benefit from eavesdropping on each other's signals by learning about shared resources or predators. But conspicuous signals are also open to exploitation by eavesdropping predators and should also pose a threat to other sympatric prey species. In western Finland, sibling voles Microtus rossiameridionalis and field voles M. agrestis compete for food and space, and both species rely upon scent marks for intraspecific communication. Both vole species are prey to a range of terrestrial scent hunting predators such as least weasels, however, the competitively superior sibling voles are taken preferentially. We tested in large out-door enclosures whether field voles eavesdrop on the signals of its competitor, and whether they behave as though this eavesdropping carries a risk of predation. We presented field voles with scent marks from unknown conspecifics and sibling voles and measured their visitation, activity and scent marking behaviours at these scents under high (weasel present) and low (weasel absent) predation risk. Field voles readily visited both field and sibling vole scents under both high and low predation risk; however their activity at sibling vole scent marks declined significantly under increased predation risk. In contrast, predation risk did not affect field voles’ activity at conspecific scents. Thus, field voles were compelled to maintain eavesdropping on heterospecific scents under an increased risk of predation, however they compensated for this additional risk by reducing their activity at these risky scents. Scent marking rates declined significantly under high predation risk. Our results therefore reveal a hidden complexity in the use of social signals within multi-species assemblages that is clearly sensitive to the potential for increased predation risk. The predation risks of interspecific eavesdropping demonstrated here represents a significant generalisation of the concept of associational susceptibility.