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Biol Lett. 2008 Aug 23;4(4):419-22. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2008.0106.

Are silica defences in grasses driving vole population cycles?

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Department of Biology and Environmental Science, University of Sussex, Falmer, Brighton, UK.


Understanding the factors that drive species population dynamics is fundamental to biology. Cyclic populations of microtine rodents have been the most intensively studied to date, yet there remains great uncertainty over the mechanisms determining the dynamics of most of these populations. For one such population, we present preliminary evidence for a novel mechanism by which herbivore-induced reductions in plant quality alter herbivore life-history parameters and subsequent population growth. We tested the effect of high silica levels on the population growth and individual performance of voles (Microtus agrestis) reared on their winter food plant (Deschampsia caespitosa). In sites where the vole population density was high, silica levels in D. caespitosa leaves collected several months later were also high and vole populations subsequently declined; in sites where the vole densities were low, levels of silica were low and population density increased. High silica levels in their food reduced vole body mass by 0.5% a day. We argue that silica-based defences in grasses may play a key role in driving vole population cycles.

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