Summer precipitation predicts spatial distributions of semiaquatic mammals

Adam A. Ahlers, Lisa A. Cotner, Patrick J. Wolff, Mark A. Mitchell, Edward J. Heske, Robert L. Schooley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Climate change is predicted to increase the frequency of droughts and intensity of seasonal precipitation in many regions. Semiaquatic mammals should be vulnerable to this increased variability in precipitation, especially in human-modified landscapes where dispersal to suitable habitat or temporary refugia may be limited. Using six years of presence-absence data (2007-2012) spanning years of record-breaking drought and flood conditions, we evaluated regional occupancy dynamics of American mink (Neovison vison) and muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) in a highly altered agroecosystem in Illinois, USA. We used noninvasive sign surveys and a multiseason occupancy modeling approach to estimate annual occupancy rates for both species and related these rates to summer precipitation. We also tracked radiomarked individuals to assess mortality risk for both species when moving in terrestrial areas. Annual model-averaged estimates of occupancy for mink and muskrat were correlated positively to summer precipitation. Mink and muskrats were widespread during a year (2008) with above-average precipitation. However, estimates of site occupancy declined substantially for mink (0.56) and especially muskrats (0.09) during the severe drought of 2012. Mink are generalist predators that probably use terrestrial habitat during droughts. However, mink had substantially greater risk of mortality away from streams. In comparison, muskrats are more restricted to aquatic habitats and likely suffered high mortality during the drought. Our patterns are striking, but a more mechanistic understanding is needed of how semiaquatic species in human-modified ecosystems will respond ecologically in situ to extreme weather events predicted by climate-change models.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0135036
JournalPloS one
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 18 2015

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • General


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