New Zealand Journal of Ecology (2008) 32(2): 166- 176

Stoat density, diet and survival compared between alpine grassland and beech forest habitats

Research Article
Des H.V. Smith 1,5*
Deborah J. Wilson 2
Henrik Moller 1
Elaine C. Murphy 3
Georgina Pickerell 4
  1. Department of Zoology, University of Otago, PO Box 56, Dunedin 9054, New Zealand
  2. Landcare Research, Private Bag 1930, Dunedin 9054, New Zealand
  3. Research, Development and Improvement Division, Department of Conservation, PO Box 13 049, Christchurch 8141, New Zealand
  4. PO Box 6105, Dunedin 9059, New Zealand
  5. Present address: Centre for Conservation Research, Calgary Zoo, Calgary AB T2E 7V6, Canada
*  Corresponding author

In New Zealand, alpine grasslands occur above the treeline of beech forest. Historically stoat control paradigms in New Zealand’s montane natural areas have assumed alpine grassland is a marginal habitat that limits dispersal between beech forest stoat populations. We compared the summer-to-autumn (January–April) density, weight, diet and winter survival of stoats between these two habitatsduring years of low beech seedfall. Stoats were live-trapped, marked and released in alpine grassland and low-altitude beech forest in the Borland Valley, Fiordland National Park, during 2003 and 2004, and were caught and euthanased for necropsy in 2005. Stoat density was estimated using spatially explicit capture–recapture (SECR). The proportion of stoats marked in one year but recaptured in the next was used as a measure of ‘observed survival’. Prey remains were identified from scats collected during 2003 and 2004 and stomachs from stoats killed in 2005. Stoat density was similar in both habitats over the two years, about one stoat per square kilometre. Observed survival from 2003–2004 was also similar, but survival from 2004–2005 was higher in alpine grassland than in beech forest. In 2003, male stoats were on average heavier in alpine grassland than in beech forest, although average weights were similar in the other years. Diet differed significantly between the two habitats, with stoats in alpine grasslands eating mainly ground weta (a large invertebrate) (72%) and hares (23%), while stoats in beech forest ate mainly birds (31%) and mice (19%). Collectively these results suggest that alpine grasslands are not a poor quality habitat for stoats. Traditionally it has been thought that stoats cannot survive on invertebrate prey alone. This research demonstrates that stoats relying largely on invertebrate prey can occur at similar densities and with equivalent survival to stoats relying on vertebrate prey.