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Demography of snowshoe hare population cycles

January 10, 2020

Cyclic fluctuations in abundance exhibited by some mammalian populations in northern habitats (“population cycles”) are key processes in the functioning of many boreal and tundra ecosystems. Understanding population cycles, essentially demographic processes, necessitates discerning the demographic mechanisms that underlie numerical changes. Using mark–recapture data spanning five population cycles (1977–2017), we examined demographic mechanisms underlying the 9–10‐yr cycles exhibited by snowshoe hares (Lepus americanus Erxleben) in southwestern Yukon, Canada. Snowshoe hare populations always decreased during winter and increased during summer; the balance between winter declines and summer increases characterized the four, multiyear cyclic phases: increase, peak, decline, and low. Little or no recruitment occurred during winter, but summer recruitment varied markedly across the four phases with the highest and lowest recruitment observed during the increase and decline phase, respectively. Population crashes during the decline were triggered by a substantial decline in winter survival and by a lack of subsequent summer recruitment. In contrast, initiation of the increase phase was triggered by a twofold increase in summer recruitment abetted secondarily by improvements in subsequent winter survival. We show that differences in peak density across cycles are explained by differences in overall population growth rate, amount of time available for population growth to occur, and starting population density. Demographic mechanisms underlying snowshoe hare population cycles were consistent across cycles in our study site but we do not yet know if similar demographic processes underlie population cycles in other northern snowshoe hare populations.