Jessica S. Cornils, Franz Hoelzl, Nikolaus Huber, Richard Zink, Hanno Gerritsmann, Claudia Bieber, Franz Schwarzenberger, and Thomas Ruf
Entire populations of edible dormice (Glis glis) can skip reproduction in years without mast seeding of deciduous trees (particularly beech or oak seed), because juveniles require high caloric seeds for growth and fattening prior to hibernation. We hypothesized that, in mast failure years, female dormice may be forced to spend larger amounts of time foraging for low-quality food, which should increase their exposure to predators, mainly owls. This may lead to chronic stress, i.e., long-term increased secretion of Glucocorticoids (GC), which can have inhibitory effects on reproductive function in both female and male mammals. We monitored reproduction in free-living female dormice over three years with varying levels of food availability, and performed a supplemental feeding experiment. To measure stress hormone levels, we determined fecal GC metabolite (GCM) concentrations collected during the day, which reflect hormone secretion rates in the previous nocturnal activity phase. We found that year-to-year differences in beech mast significantly affected fecal GCM levels and reproduction. However, contrary to our hypothesis, GCM levels were lowest in a non-mast year without reproduction, and significantly elevated in full-mast and intermediate years, as well as under supplemental feeding. Variation in owl density in our study area had no influence on GCM levels. Consequently, we conclude that down-regulation of gonads and reproduction skipping in mast-failure years in this species is not caused by chronic stress. Thus, in edible dormice, delayed reproduction apparently is profitable in response to the absence of energy-rich food in non-mast years, but not in response to chronic stress.