The combined effect of environmental factors and neighbouring populations on the distribution and abundance of Arvicola terrestris. An approach using rule-based models
Bonesi L., Rushton S., Macdonald D.
We investigated how the interplay between environmental factors and presence of neighbouring populations determines the distribution and abundance of a small, endangered rodent, the water vole (Arvicola terrestris). We studied thriving and non-fragmented populations of water voles in the absence of their main predator, the introduced American mink (Mustela vison). A low degree of population fragmentation, such as the one characterizing the studied populations, was probably typical of water voles before their decline started. We found that under these conditions water voles' distribution is mainly determined by three environmental factors: presence of freshwater, adequate food, and cover. Variance in other factors is well tolerated by water voles. We obtained this result by the use of rule-based models in two separate areas. The two models correctly classified 81% and 83% of the observed cases, respectively. When optimised on one area and cross-validated on the other area the performance of the models was still high (73% and 79%) indicating that the models were robust and generalizable. We also found that the density of animals was lower in sub-optimal than in optimal habitat. We then tested the hypothesis that the number of neighbouring colonies determines the probability of finding voles in a given section. We found that the presence of nearby colonies was an important factor in determining the presence of water voles in sub-optimal habitat, while isolated patches of suitable habitat were less likely to host water voles. These observations suggest the possible presence of a source-sink dynamic, where an optimal habitat acts as a source for populating sub-optimal habitats that may be considered a sink habitat. These findings are discussed in the context of water vole conservation.