Open Access Research article

The interplay between seasonality and density: consequences for female breeding decisions in a small cyclic herbivore

Adrien Pinot12*, Bertrand Gauffre13 and Vincent Bretagnolle1

Author Affiliations

1 Centre d’Etudes Biologiques de Chizé (CEBC-CNRS), Beauvoir sur Niort 79360, France

2 Clermont Université, VetAgro Sup, BP 10448, Clermont-Ferrand F-63000, France

3 INRA, USC1339 (CEBC-CNRS), Beauvoir sur Niort F-79360, France

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BMC Ecology 2014, 14:17  doi:10.1186/1472-6785-14-17

Published: 28 May 2014



Cyclic rodent population dynamics are subjected to both intrinsic regulatory processes such as density-dependence and extrinsic environmental forcing. Among extrinsic factors, seasonal environmental variation is understood to facilitate cycles. In rodents, these processes have been studied mostly independently and their relative importance for population dynamics is poorly known.


We performed a detailed analysis of common vole (Microtus arvalis) reproduction in a cyclic population using a spatially extensive data set over 17 years in central-western France. Environmental seasonality was the main source of explained variation in common vole reproduction. Additionally, inter-annual variation in the environment explained a smaller part of the variance in reproduction in spring and summer than in winter, whereas the effect of density was only found in autumn and winter. In particular, we detected a strong impact of plant productivity on fecundity during the breeding season, with low vegetation productivity being able to bring vole reproduction nearly to a halt. In contrast, vole reproduction during autumn and winter was mainly shaped by intrinsic factors, with only the longer and heavier females being able to reproduce. The effect of population density on reproduction was negative, mediated by direct negative effects on the proportion of breeders in autumn and winter during outbreak years and by a delayed negative effect on litter size the following year.


During the main breeding season, variability of female vole reproduction is predominantly shaped by food resources, suggesting that only highly productive environment may induce vole outbreaks. During fall and winter, variability of female vole reproduction is mainly controlled by intrinsic factors, with high population density suppressing reproduction. This suggests, in this cyclic population, that negative direct density dependence on reproduction could explain winter declines after outbreaks.

Seasonality; Population cycles; Common vole; Density-dependence; Fecundity