Food resources and foraging habits of the common shrew, Sorex araneus: does winter food shortage explain Dehnel's phenomenon?


S. Churchfield, Dept of Anatomy and Human Sciences, King's College London, Guy's Campus, London, SE1 1UL, UK. E-mail:


It is widely assumed that winter is a critical time for homeotherms because of decreased ambient temperatures coupled with reduced food supply. Shrews are excellent models for investigating overwintering strategies, not only because of their particularly small size, high energy requirements relative to their size and short fasting endurance, but also the dramatic reduction in body size (Dehnel's phenomenon) exhibited by soricine shrews in northern temperate winters. The cause of Dehnel's phenomenon is poorly understood but food supply is implicated. To test the hypothesis that winter at higher latitudes is a period of food shortage for small homeotherms, we compared feeding habits of common shrews, Sorex araneus, and abundance and biomass of their prey in winters and summers in northeastern Poland using scat analysis combined with pitfall and ground core sampling for invertebrates. Ground-surface activity and numbers of invertebrates in pitfall traps were greatly reduced in winter but, contrary to prediction, no significant differences between winter and summer were found in total numbers and biomass of prey invertebrates in ground core samples. However, certain prey types changed seasonally with respect to numbers, biomass and distribution in the soil profile, which was reflected in shrews’ food composition and foraging behaviour. Dehnel's phenomenon appears not to be caused by reduction in total prey numbers and biomass, at least in our study area. Smaller body mass coupled with lowering of absolute food requirements may have important survival value in winter with its reduced numbers of certain major prey coupled with increased difficulty of locating and extracting invertebrates within the soil profile resulting in higher energetic costs of foraging.