Europe-Wide Dampening of Population Cycles in Keystone Herbivores

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Science  05 Apr 2013:
Vol. 340, Issue 6128, pp. 63-66
DOI: 10.1126/science.1228992

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Cycling in Unison

Many small mammals, especially voles, display semi-regular cycles of population boom and bust. Given the fundamental importance of small mammals as basal consumers and prey, such cycles can have cascading effects in trophic food webs. Cornulier et al. (p. 63) collated raw data from vole populations across Europe collected over the past 18 years. Reduction in winter growth rate was common across a wide variety of habitats with very different local climates, suggesting the presence of a continental-scale climatic driver of vole populations.


Suggestions of collapse in small herbivore cycles since the 1980s have raised concerns about the loss of essential ecosystem functions. Whether such phenomena are general and result from extrinsic environmental changes or from intrinsic process stochasticity is currently unknown. Using a large compilation of time series of vole abundances, we demonstrate consistent cycle amplitude dampening associated with a reduction in winter population growth, although regulatory processes responsible for cyclicity have not been lost. The underlying syndrome of change throughout Europe and grass-eating vole species suggests a common climatic driver. Increasing intervals of low-amplitude small herbivore population fluctuations are expected in the future, and these may have cascading impacts on trophic webs across ecosystems.

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