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Article Abstract – Longland & Price (1991)


Direct Observations of Owls and Heteromyid Rodents: Can Predation Risk Explain Microhabitat Use?

Authors and affiliations:

William S. Longland, Department of Biology, University of California, Riverside, CA
Mary V. Price, Department of Biology, University of California, Riverside, CA


Ecology 72: 2261-2273 (1991)


Coexisting heteromyid rodent species of North American deserts differ in habitat use and in locomotory morphology. Quadrupedal species forage primarily in structurally complex microhabitats, such as under bush canopies, while bipedal species forage in open spaces. A common explanation for this morphology-microhabitat association is that species differing in morphology also differ in vulnerability to predators, that microhabitat structure affects predation risk, and that animals preferentially forage in the safest microhabitats. We tested this for two bipedal and two quadrupedal heteromyid species (matched by body size), and one cricetid species, by quantifying effects of habitat and illumination on activity and on risk of predation by Great Horned Owls. Capture frequencies were lower for all heteromyid species than for the cricetid species, Peromyscus maniculatus. Heteromyid activity was lower in open habitat and under bright illumination. Illumination had no significant effect on risk, perhaps because rodents changed activity patterns under full moon to compensate for a potential increment in risk. Habitat, however, did affect risk: all species were attacked and captured more frequently in the open. Bipedal species were attacked relatively more in the open than were quadrupeds. If these results apply to all predators, they indicate that predation alone cannot account for the divergent microhabitat associations of bipedal and quadrupedal species. Bipedal heteromyids, however, escaped owl attacks more frequently than did quadrupeds of equivalent size. It is therefore conceivable that they experience lower overall risk in nature, where owls may preferentially attack more easily captured prey species when given a choice. Under these circumstances, owl predation could reinforce divergent microhabitat specializations based on some other factor, such as foraging economics, by restricting quadrupeds more strongly than bipeds to the safety of bushes.

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