Social ecology of Otomys irroratus, Rhabdomys pumilio and Praomys natalensis.
Willan, Kenneth Brian Ronald.
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This work sets out to describe the socio-ecological niches of otonya irroratus, Rhabdomys pumilio and Praomys natalensis in the Natal midlands. This objective necessitated a broad-based approach in which aspects of the ecological niches, and the social behaviour and social organization of the three species were investigated in field (habitat and trapping) and laboratory (experimental and observational) studies, during the period January 1976-May 1978. To test the assumption that the commonly sympatric O. irroratus, R. pumilio and P. natalensis are primarily adapted to habitats which differ mainly in respect of water availability, an attempt was made to define their positions on a mesic/xeric continuum. The results suggest that in terms of the parameters measured (responses to water and cover availability, and to food and water deprivation), O. irroratus is more nearly mesically adapted than is R. pumilio, with P. natalensis positioned between the two extremes. However, in the case of P. natalensis it is apparently of overriding importance that this species is adapted to disturbed habitats. The mesic habitats preferred by O. irroratus are often of limited size, but resource availability within these areas is apparently high and stable. Extensive areas of suitable habitat are available to R. pumilio, but availability of resources is seasonally variable. The disturbed habitats preferred by P. natalensis arise unpredictably in nature and, depending on the rate of ecological succession, may be short-lived; hence availability of resources to this species is highly unpredictable. Social behaviour was studied by means of dyadic encounters in the laboratory. Communication in O. irroratus, R. pumilio and P. natalensis appears to be dominated by auditory, visual and olfactory signals respectively, although O. irroratus also has well developed visual signals in its communicatory repertoire. These differences are explained mainly in terms of patterns of diel activity and habitat preferences: R. pumilio is adapted to bright light, and its visual signals are subtle; O. irroratus is adapted to dim light, and its visual signals involve gross changes in posture, while the use of loud, low frequency vocalizations would allow conspecifics to know their precise location in relation to one another in dense vegetation; P. natalensis is nocturnal, and hence appears to emphasize olfactory (and possibly ultrasonic) communication, which would permit transfer of information in the dark. O. irroratus is overtly highly aggressive, but agonism is ritualized; ritualization of aggression has probably evolved to allow high densities of this species to exploit limited areas of prime habitat. R. pumilio is less overtly aggressive than O. irroratus, but aggression tends to be unritualized; direct aggression probably acts as a spacing mechanism, and is possible in view of the large areas of habitat available to this species. Agonism is poorly developed and ritualized in P. natalensis, permitting high sociability and group formation in this species, and maximum exploitation of locally abundant resources. Social organization was studied in the field (trapping studies) and by means of dyadic encounters in the laboratory. The social system of O. irroratus appears to include temporal territoriality, which would permit animals to live in close spatial association (in small areas of habitat) while seldom actually meeting. Hierarchical ranking occurs in male O. irroratus and R. pumilio, with competition in both most likely being for mating opportunities. Breeding females of these two species are intrasexually territorial, in the case of Q. irroratus thereby providing dispersing young with adequate space for establishment of a home-range in prime habitat, and in R. pumilio protecting the young against conspecific female aggression until dispersal. R. pumilio tends to aggregate in mesic refuge habitats in winter, which apparently reflects the seasonality of resource availability to this species in drier environments. P. natalensis is colonial, an adaptation facilitating maximum exploitation of temporarily abundant resources in transitory disturbed habitats. In response to intense courtship by the male, female R. pumilio appear to undergo reflex ovulation; this strategy would maximize the chances of fertilization occurring during occasional meetings between males and females. Courtship intensity is low in P. natalensis, and presumably because the colonial social system of this species ensures frequent association between potential mates, females appear to ovulate spontaneously. Sexual activity was not observed in O. irroratus. The life-history tactics of the three species are such that o. irroratus and P. natalensis respectively appear to be K- and r-selected, with R. pumilio falling between these two extremes on an r-K continuum.