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Proc Biol Sci. 2009 May 7;276(1662):1611-7. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2008.1669. Epub 2009 Jan 20.

Can parasites drive population cycles in mountain hares?

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  • 1Division of Environmental and Evolutionary Biology, University of Glasgow, Glasgow G12 8QQ, UK. sunnytownsend@gmail.com

Abstract

Understanding the drivers of population fluctuations is a central goal of ecology. Although well-established theory suggests that parasites can drive cyclic population fluctuations in their hosts, field evidence is lacking. Theory predicts that a parasite that loosely aggregates in the host population and has stronger impact on host fecundity than survival should induce cycling. The helminth Trichostrongylus retortaeformis in the UK's only native lagomorph, the mountain hare, has exactly these properties, and the hares exhibit strong population fluctuations. Here we use a host-parasite model parametrized using the available empirical data to test this superficial concordance between theory and observation. In fact, through an innovative combination of sensitivity and stability analyses, we show that hare population cycles do not seem to be driven by the parasite. Potential limitations in our parametrization and model formulation, together with the possible secondary roles for parasites in determining hare demography, are discussed. Improving our knowledge of leveret biology and the quantification of harvesting emerge as future research priorities. With the growing concern over the present management of mountain hares for disease control in Scotland, understanding their population drivers is an important prerequisite for the effective management of this species.

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