Do competitive intraguild interactions affect space and habitat use by small carnivores in a forested landscape?

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Complex interactions such as interference competition and predation, including intraguild predation, are now recognized as important components in animal community structure. At the lower end of a guild, weasels may be highly affected by other guild members due to small body size in relation to other predators. In 2000 and 2001, we radio-collared 24 ermines Mustela erminea and 25 long-tailed weasels M. frenata in 2 areas that differed in abundance of guild members. We tested the hypothesis that when faced with an increased density of other guild members, weasels would modify space and habitat use to reduce the risk of predation associated with encounters involving guild members. We predicted that weasels would increase use of specific habitats (such as refuges) to reduce encounter rates in the presence of a greater number of guild members. Because M. erminea is smaller than M. frenata and thus better able to take advantage of small rodent burrows as refuges from predators and as feeding grounds, we also predicted that M. frenata would show a stronger response to a higher abundance of guild members than M. erminea. Results were consistent with our predictions. Faced with an increased abundance of guild members, M. frenata showed increased habitat selectivity and reduced activity levels, which resulted in increased daily travel distances and increased home ranges. Mustela erminea responded to an increased abundance of guild members through reduced use of preferred habitat which M. frenata already occupied. The contrasting pattern of habitat selection observed between the 2 mustelid species suggested cascading effects, whereby large-predator pressure on M. frenata relaxed pressure of M. frenata on M. erminea. Our results draw attention to the likelihood that competitive intraguild interactions play a facilitating role in M. erminea–M. frenata coexistence.

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