Aaron B. Shiels https://orcid.org/0000-0002-6774-4560
Date of this Version
Hurricanes cause dramatic changes to forests by opening the canopy and depositing debris onto the forest floor. How invasive rodent populations respond to hurricanes is not well understood, but shifts in rodent abundance and foraging may result from scarce fruit and seed resources that follow hurricanes. We conducted studies in a wet tropical forest in Puerto Rico to better understand how experimental (canopy trimming experiment) and natural (Hurricane Maria) hurricane effects alter populations of invasive rodents (Rattus rattus [rats] and Mus musculus [mice]) and their foraging behaviors. To monitor rodent populations, we used tracking tunnels (inked and baited cards inside tunnels enabling identification of animal visitors’ footprints) within experimental hurricane plots (arborist trimmed in 2014) and reference plots (closed canopy forest). To assess shifts in rodent foraging, we compared seed removal of two tree species (Guarea guidonia and Prestoea acuminata) between vertebrate-excluded and free-access treatments in the same experimental and reference plots, and did so 3 months before and 9 months after Hurricane Maria (2017). Trail cameras were used to identify animals responsible for seed removal. Rat incidences generated from tracking tunnel surveys indicated that rat populations were not significantly affected by experimental or natural hurricanes. Before Hurricane Maria there were no mice in the forest interior, yet mice were present in forest plots closest to the road after the hurricane, and their forest invasion coincided with increased grass cover resulting from open forest canopy. Seed removal of Guarea and Prestoea across all plots was rat dominated (75%–100% rat-removed) and was significantly less after than before Hurricane Maria. However, following Hurricane Maria, the experimental hurricane treatment plots of 2014 had 3.6 times greater seed removal by invasive rats than did the reference plots, which may have resulted from rats selecting post-hurricane forest patches with greater understory cover for foraging. Invasive rodents are resistant to hurricane disturbance in this forest. Predictions of increased hurricane frequency from expected climate change should result in forest with more frequent periods of grassy understories and mouse presence, as well as with heightened rat foraging for fruit and seed in preexisting areas of disturbance.
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