Spatial and seasonal variation in occupation and abundance of common vole burrows in highly disturbed agricultural ecosystems

  • Ana Eugenia SantamaríaEmail author
  • Pedro P. Olea
  • Javier Viñuela
  • Jesús T. García
Original Article


Understanding how species respond to disturbance in human-modified ecosytems is critical for management and conservation of biodiversity in the Anthropocene. In agroecosystems, human disturbances severely modify the habitat of species, particularly for those that live in burrows. The common vole Microtus arvalis (Pallas, 1778) is a semi-fossorial microtine, which often exhibits large abundance fluctuations, becoming an agricultural pest in peak years. We evaluated how both agrarian disturbances (via types of crop and their management) and landscape heterogeneity influenced the abundance of common vole burrow systems along a yearly cycle, at the field and landscape scales. We seasonally recorded the number of burrows and their recent occupation in circular plots of 200-m radius including different types of crops in intensified agrarian landscapes in NW Spain. Our results showed a marked seasonal and spatial pattern in both total abundance and abundance of occupied burrows. After a population peak year, only 31% of burrows were occupied across the year (from 41% in spring–summer to 12% in autumn). The crop type and its management in relation to soil disturbance were the main factors driving seasonal and spatial dynamics of burrow abundance at the field and landscape scale. Alfalfa fields held the highest abundance of both total and occupied burrow systems across the year, while fields of traditional-tilled cereal retained the lowest. As a result, at the landscape scale, plots with a greater surface devoted to traditional cereal crops maintained a lower relative number of burrow systems. Regarding the landscape structural heterogeneity, plots with longer length of field margins and lower area of watercourses maintained higher abundance of burrow systems. An adequate landscape-scale planning of crop types, agricultural practices, and distribution of non-crop habitats could be a promising sustainable method to reduce the risk of crop-damaging vole plagues.


Agricultural pest Microtus arvalis Multi-scale approach Small mammal Soil perturbation 



We are very grateful to Luis M. Carrascal and Javier Seoane for statistical advice and workers of GREFA and students of Universidad Autónoma de Madrid for help during censuses. Special thanks to Iván García Egea, Silvia Herrero Cófreces, Alfonso Paz Luna, Daniel Jareño Gómez, Ana Benítez López, María Calero Riestra, and Jorge Piñeiro Álvarez for their help during fieldwork. We would like to also thank the numerous landowners who allowed us access to their property.


This study was funded by I+D National Plan Projects of the Spanish Ministry of Economy, Industry and Competitiveness (CGL2011-30274 and CGL2015-71255-P), and the Fundación BBVA Research Project TOPIGEPLA (2014 call).

Supplementary material

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Instituto de Investigación en Recursos CinegéticosIREC (CSIC-UCLM-JCCM)Ciudad RealSpain
  2. 2.Departamento de EcologíaUniversidad Autónoma de MadridMadridSpain
  3. 3.Centro de Investigación en Biodiversidad y Cambio Global (CIBC-UAM)Universidad Autónoma de MadridMadridSpain

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