Monitoring Least Weasels after a Winter Peak of Lemmings in Taimyr: Body Condition, Diet and Habitat Use
Keywords:least weasel, Mustela nivalis, predator, tundra, lemming cycles, Lemmus sibiricus, lemming winter nests, tracking tunnels, monitoring, stable isotope analysis, Taimyr
Least weasels are highly specialized small-rodent predators. Despite the fact that they are hypothesized to play an important role in generating the lemming cycles, a key process for the functioning of the terrestrial tundra ecosystem, very little is known about the biology of these miniature carnivores in the Arctic. At Mys Vostochny in western Taimyr, Russia, least weasels were observed for the first time during a lemming peak in 2005, but not in two subsequent years with low lemming densities. Here we report observations about weasel signs in lemming winter nests, body condition, habitat use, and diet in summer 2008, a year when lemmings had been numerous under the snow but populations crashed before the summer, and least weasels were abundant. Stable isotope analyses revealed that weasel diet was dominated by Siberian lemmings during spring. As expected, given lower resource availability when the lemming population crashed, weight (taking into account body length) was somewhat lower in 2008 than in 2005. Tracking tunnels and trapping showed that in summer least weasels mostly used sheltered habitats such as rocky outcrops and driftwood. Together with surveys of lemming winter nests, tracking tunnels appeared to be a promising method for monitoring least weasels in the Arctic tundra.