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Weather-driven change in primary productivity explains variation in the amplitude of two herbivore population cycles in a boreal system

Abstract

Vertebrate populations throughout the circumpolar north often exhibit cyclic dynamics, and predation is generally considered to be a primary driver of these cycles in a variety of herbivore species. However, weather and climate play a role in entraining cycles over broad landscapes and may alter cyclic dynamics, although the mechanism by which these processes operate is uncertain. Experimental and observational work has suggested that weather influences primary productivity over multi-year time periods, suggesting a pathway through which weather and climate may influence cyclic herbivore dynamics. Using long-term monitoring data, we investigated the relationships among multi-year weather conditions, measures of primary productivity, and the abundance of two cyclic herbivore species: snowshoe hare and northern red-backed vole. We found that precipitation (rain and snow) and growing season temperatures were strongly associated with variation in primary productivity over multi-year time horizons. In turn, fourfold variation in the amplitude of both the hare and vole cycles observed in our study area corresponded to long-term changes in primary productivity. The congruence of our results for these two species suggests a general mechanism by which weather and climate might influence cyclic herbivore population dynamics. Our findings also suggested that the association between climate warming and the disappearance of cycles might be initiated by changes in primary productivity. This work provides an explanation for observed influences of weather and climate on primary productivity and population cycles and will help our collective understanding of how future climate warming may influence these ecological phenomena in the future.

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Acknowledgements

J. D. Nichols and N. G. Yoccoz provided helpful comments on a previous version of this manuscript. We thank D. Verbyla for providing the NDVI data, J. Walker for thoughtful discussions, and J. Mizel for help designing figures. Funding for this work was provided by the US National Park Service, specifically the Central Alaska Network and Denali National Park and Preserve. Any mention of trade names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the US Government.

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EAR designed the vole study and EAR and MJF collected the vole data. CLM designed the hare project and collected the hare data. JHS analyzed the data and wrote the manuscript. All authors contributed to the conceptual integration of the datasets, discussed the results, and made substantive comments on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Joshua H. Schmidt.

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Communicated by Janne Sundell.

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Schmidt, J.H., Rexstad, E.A., Roland, C.A. et al. Weather-driven change in primary productivity explains variation in the amplitude of two herbivore population cycles in a boreal system. Oecologia 186, 435–446 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-017-4004-3

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Keywords

  • Alaska
  • Bottom-up
  • Denali National Park
  • Growing degree days
  • Population dynamics
  • Precipitation
  • Primary productivity
  • Red-backed vole
  • Snowshoe hare