Behaviour and choice of refuge by voles under predation risk

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Animals often show a strong antipredatory response when they are exposed to their most deadly predator. In northern vole populations, the least weasel, Mustela nivalis nivalis, is probably the most important predator of voles. Because of its small size and slender body shape, the least weasel is capable of hunting voles in their burrows. However, small voles can potentially escape weasel predation by selecting holes smaller than those weasels can enter. We studied the choice of nest holes and refuges by two species of voles under simulated predation risk. In a laboratory experiment, voles were provided with four nest boxes as refuges, with individually adjusted entrance sizes. When exposed to the odour of a weasel, voles did not choose the smallest opening; they rather seemed to trade full protection for easy and immediate access by choosing the nest box with an intermediate entrance size. When outside the nest at the time when a weasel entered the arena, voles avoided the refuges with the smallest holes. In addition to using refuges on ground level, voles climbed on top of the boxes as an escape reaction, as well as exhibiting a variety of behavioural responses, such as fast running, freezing and sneaking.

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