Ecology of an island mouse, Apodemus sylvaticus hirtensis
Black, Thomas William
An island subspecies endemic to the remote St Kilda archipelago, Apodemus sylvaticus hirtensis is considered of national importance but has been little studied, despite its inclusion in the criteria for the islands’ designation as a World Heritage Site. This study expands our knowledge of the core ecology of the mice; distribution, morphology, age structure, breeding phenology, population density, range size, survival and fecundity are all described and quantified using data collected from 4462 captures of 787 individuals between 2009-2012 on three sites (Carn Mor, Glen Bay & Village Bay), 1-2km apart on the main island of Hirta. Morphological analysis confirmed the reputed gigantism the mice, with maximum body weights of 60g for males and 50.5g for a non-gravid female both being approximately double that of a mainland specimen (the heaviest gravid female caught weighed 56g). Sexual dimorphism was evident, with males >1 year old being 8.7% heavier than females on average. Significant geographical variation in size was also found; mice on the seabird breeding colony of Carn Mor were heavier, longer and in better condition than mice elsewhere. Mice were observed to have a well-defined breeding season between April and September, shorter than on the mainland, with most individuals not breeding until their second year and very few surviving two winters. No geographical differences were found in the proportion of adult mice more than a year old that were in breeding condition at any given time, although there were significant geographical differences in the proportion of individuals in breeding condition for ‘young adult’ mice entering their first spring and sub adult mice in the autumn of the year in which they were. Spatially explicit capture-recapture (SECR) methods were used to quantify population densities free from ad hoc methods of trapping area estimation. Temporal variation in population size typical of temperate small mammals was found, with densities as low as 2 mice/ha in spring, increasing through summer and autumn with juvenile recruitment until reaching a peak at the beginning of winter of up to 50 mice/ha. Geographical variation was again observed, with frequent significant differences between trapping sites and an overall trend of highest population densities on the seabird breeding site. Mean individual range sizes varied between 0.3-3.0ha and were largest in Village Bay and in males in breeding condition. Pradel robust design recruitment models were used to quantify monthly survival (0.67-1.00) and fecundity (0.03- 0.41) and overall rate of population change (0.81-1.52) between sessions. Survival varied little between grids outside of the breeding season, but tended to be greater in Carn Mor than Village Bay during the summer. Fecundity rates varied little between years and grids, with one exception where increased summer fecundity followed a severe winter decline on Carn Mor. The possible role of differences in the quality of the food supply (in particular the seabird breeding colony and spatial variation in sheep grazing pressure) on creating geographical variation in body size, condition, breeding phenology, density and population dynamics are discussed in detail, as is the overall pattern of insular traits found in the mice.