Conservation and ecology of the hazel dormouse, Muscardinus avellanarius
Mills, Cheryl Anne
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
Conservation biologists require information on the distribution, ecology, behaviour and genetic diversity of endangered species in order to identify threatened populations, determine which mechanisms are driving populations closer to extinction, and design appropriate mitigating solutions. The hazel dormouse, Muscardinus avellanarius, is declining across much of its northern range. Dormice are detrimentally affected by habitat degradation, loss and fragmentation. Despite extensive studies and conservation work on hazel dormice, there remain many gaps in our understanding. This thesis aims to fill some of those gaps. Hazel dormice are elusive, and therefore difficult to monitor in the wild. I demonstrate the utility of novel monitoring techniques for the rapid determination of dormouse presence, and provide algorithms for the objective verification of species identity from small mammal footprints. I design and utilise genetic microsatellite markers to investigate molecular ecology in this species. In one of the first studies of hazel dormouse population genetics, I describe high levels of population differentiation and genetic isolation across the southwest UK range. I find a powerful signal of reduction in genetic diversity, and an increase in differentiation between core and peripheral populations. I consider rival hypotheses for the mechanisms driving this population genetic pattern, and place the results in the context of conservation strategies for UK dormice. Further, I use molecular data to investigate the prevalence of multiple paternity in wild dormouse populations. Results contradict a recent estimate of very high rates of polyandry, but remain high at 50%. I investigate the effect of food availability on the hibernation behaviour of dormice. My findings, which demonstrate dormice are variable and flexible in their response to winter diet, increases our understanding of the trade-offs dormice must make in order to survive winter periods. I hope that the research undertaken for this thesis will add to the understanding and conservation of an iconic British mammal, ultimately contributing to the persistence of this species.
Peoples Trust for Endangered Species
PhD in Biological Sciences