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Sleeping through danger: the dormouse approach to survival
Date:4/1/2011

The dormouse in Alice in Wonderland was well advised to stay asleep especially as doing so did not prevent it from taking a full part in the tea-time conversation. Dormice in Europe spend about eight months of the year asleep and are extremely safe during this extended period, with almost all of them surviving the winter. This result comes from a study of dormouse survival rates in Austria, the Czech Republic, England, Germany and Italy.

Karin Lebl was a PhD student in Ruf's group. Together with collaboration partners in these countries, she examined how the survival of dormice living in the wild varies according to a number of factors, including the time of the year, various climatic factors and the animals' reproductive behaviour. In contrast to some species of marmot, for which hibernation is known to be associated with high mortality rates, the dormouse seems well able to accumulate enough fat reserves to survive even the harshest winter. Nevertheless, the work of Ruf's group showed that dormice in all five study countries are particularly vulnerable in early spring, immediately after they awake from hibernation. The animals clearly lose weight as a result of spending eight months without food, so afterwards they spend a large amount of time foraging, which presumably makes them more susceptible to predators: owls, weasels, pine martens and both wild and domestic cats.

The risk of having young

Unusually for small mammals, dormice do not breed every year. Instead, they "save" their reproductive efforts for years when there are good supplies of acorns or beech nuts. Such events occur irregularly and at different rates: in Germany, for example, seeding is considerable more frequent than in the study area in the northern Italian Alps. Lebl and Ruf found that mortality rates were significantly higher in years when the animals had young than in years when they did not. This may relate to the increased time the parent
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Contact: Professor Thomas Ruf
thomas.ruf@fiwi.at
43-148-909-15150
University of Veterinary Medicine -- Vienna
Source:Eurekalert

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