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Life history traits in a cyclic ecosystem: a field experiment on the arctic fox.


The reproduction of many species depends strongly on variation in food availability. The main prey of the arctic fox in Fennoscandia are cyclic small rodents, and its number of litters and litter size vary depending on the phase of the rodent cycle. In this experiment, we studied if the arctic fox adjusts its reproduction as a direct response to food abundance, in accordance with the food limitation hypothesis, or if there are additional phase-dependent trade-offs that influence its reproduction. We analysed the weaning success, i.e. proportion of arctic fox pairs established during mating that wean a litter in summer, of 422 pairs of which 361 were supplementary winter fed, as well as the weaned litter size of 203 litters of which 115 were supplementary winter fed. Females without supplementary winter food over-produced cubs in relation to food abundance in the small rodent increase phase, i.e. the litter size was equal to that in the peak phase when food was more abundant. The litter size for unfed females was 6.38 in the increase phase, 7.11 in the peak phase and 3.84 in the decrease phase. The litter size for supplementary winter-fed litters was 7.95 in the increase phase, 10.61 in the peak phase and 7.86 in the decrease phase. Thus, feeding had a positive effect on litter size, but it did not diminish the strong impact of the small rodent phase, supporting phase-dependent trade-offs in addition to food determining arctic fox reproduction.