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Continent-wide look at vole populations

The common vole (Microtus arvalis) is the most common species in European farmland. Continent-scale collapses in population cycles of these species and other grass-eating voles could have profound effects on predators and on other components of the food web.
[Photo by Karol Zub]

Climate may be affecting vole populations across Europe, a new study in the journal Science reports.

Grass-eating voles are a fundamental link in the food chain as they are essential prey for many predators, and primary consumers of vegetation. Voles are well known to show regular population cycles during which their numbers fluctuate between high and low abundance.

Given their important role in the food chain, understanding the dynamics of vole population fluctuations may help researchers predict how ecosystems might behave in the future.

Thomas Cornulier at the University of Aberdeen in the UK and colleagues collected data on changes in population abundance over time from vole populations across Europe over the past 40 years.

They found a pattern of dampening population cycles at a continental scale. These mousy creatures now rarely reach the huge densities that once allowed them to have drive periodic changes in ecosystems, the authors note.

The changes appear to be associated with a reduction in winter population growth, suggesting that climate conditions across Europe have become less favorable to large increases in vole abundance.

The researchers aren't exactly sure what is driving the global decrease in winter vole populations, but the large-scale deterioration of voles' environment due to climate change may be one likely factor.