Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Secret life of mammals in arable farmland

A St Andrews University student is shedding light on the secret life of small mammals in arable farmland.

Amanda Wilson is being mentored through her PhD by Dave Parish, our senior scientist, and is investigating how small mammals use arable habitat within Tayside. Amanda is a joint student between the University of St Andrews and the James Hutton Institute in Dundee, where she is being supervised by Dr Brian Fenton, Dr Graham Begg and Professor Steve Hubbard.

During the growing season wood mice make use of both crop and semi-natural habitat.

Research into the effect of small mammals within agricultural systems has been traditionally lacking. Nevertheless, they may play an important positive or negative role in achieving sustainable agriculture, by consuming weed seeds for example. They are an abundant and common environmental resource and provide a food source for rare and threatened birds of prey and larger mammals. They may also compromise food production, especially at high densities, by consuming crops.

“We have been combining molecular genetics with live trapping to investigate habitat use by individuals at different stages of the growing season,” explained Amanda, who has captured hundreds of wood mice and extracted DNA from their hair. “This information can be used to identify positions where unique individuals have been recaptured and to investigate population genetic structure and how it changes throughout the growing season.

“Initial findings have shown that during the early growing season, wood mice made use of both crop and semi-natural habitat. In contrast, voles appeared to make greater use of semi-natural habitat provided via agri-environment schemes. We found evidence that wood mouse population structure is altered around the time when harvesting occurs, perhaps being driven by this disturbance. Research at a larger scale has suggested that wood mice move through arable habitats easier than urban ones, as the latter are usually more fragmented.”

Amanda hopes her research will provide greater insight into small mammal population structure within agricultural habitat, the most common type of habitat in Britain (70-75% of all land). See more at www.gwct.org.uk/scotland/smallmammals

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