The impact of predator-induced stress on the snowshoe hare cycle

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  • The sublethal effects of high predation risk on both prey behavior and physiology may have long-term consequences for prey population dynamics. We tested the hypothesis that snowshoe hares during the population decline are chronically stressed because of high predation risk whereas those during the population low are not, and that this has negative effects on both their physiology and demography. Snowshoe hares exhibit 10- yr population cycles; during declines, virtually every hare that dies is killed by a predator. We assessed the physiological responsiveness of the stress axis and of energy mobilization by subjecting hares during the population decline and low to a hormonal-challenge protocol. We monitored the population demography through live-trapping and assessed reproduction through a maternal-cage technique. During the 1990s’ decline in the Yukon, Canada, hares were chronically stressed—as indicated by higher levels of free cortisol, reduced maximum corticosteroid-binding capacity, reduced testosterone response, reduced index of body condition, reduced leucocyte counts, increased overwinter body-mass loss, and increased glucose mobilization, relative to hares during the population low. This evidence is consistent with the explanation that predation risk, not high hare density or poor nutritional condition, accounted for the chronic stress and for the marked deterioration of reproduction during the decline. Reproduction and indices of stress physiology did not improve until predation risk declined. These findings may also account for the lag in recovery of hare reproduction after predator densities have declined and thus may implicate the long-term consequences of predation risk on prey populations beyond the immediate effects of predators on prey behavior and physiology.

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    Article (Published)
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    © 1998 Ecological Society of America. This version of this article is open access and can be downloaded and shared. The original author(s) and source must be cited.
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    • Boonstra, R., Hik, D., Singleton, G. R., & Tinnikov, A. (1998). The impact of predator-induced stress on the snowshoe hare cycle. Ecological Monographs, 68(3), 371-394.