Ecological niche responses of small mammals to gypsy moth disturbance

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Virginia Tech

The objective of this study was to determine differences in small mammal assemblage structure and population dynamics among four oak dominated sites at four different stages of gypsy moth disturbance: a high tree mortality site, a disturbance in process site, a disturbance recovery site, and an undisturbed reference site. More specifically, the study was designed to identify changes in habitat structure that would influence small mammal microdistributions and determine the quality of habitat created by gypsy moth herbivory using demographic structure of Peromyscus populations as an indicator of habitat quality.

Peromyscus leucopus, Peromyscus maniculatus, the Soricids, and Clethrionomys gapperi had greater abundances at the disturbed sites relative to the reference site. Gypsy moth disturbance increased the abundance of small mammals and the number of coexisting species within a given area, which was attributed to several changes in habitat structure. The disturbed sites were characterized as having more fallen logs and standing dead snags, greater shrub and herbaceous cover, and higher invertebrate abundances relative to the reference site. These changes in habitat structure provided small mammals with increased cover from avian predators, more food resources, and potential nesting cavities.

P. leucopus populations at the high mortality site exhibited greater demographic stability than the reference Site populations. This was marked by higher proportions of females, smaller density fluctuations, more fall recruitment of young, higher residency, and lower proportions of males. Strong evidence for density-dependent population regulation was observed for P. leucopus populations at the high mortality site and the P. maniculatus population at the recovery site. At high densities these populations exhibited extensive intraspecific microhabitat segregation. Female adults segregated from juveniles and male adults into more optimal microhabitats. Male adult microhabitat use significantly differed from male juvenile microhabitat use. The exclusion of young mice from optimal microhabitats by adults may be a mechanism by which adults limit over-exploitation of resources by subordinate members of the population at high densities. The results of this study suggest that gypsy moth disturbance of areas dominated by chestnut oaks at least temporarily improves habitat quality for small mammals.