Gaps in habitats need to be filled to help hazel dormice, finds study

The rare hazel dormouse is under threat as shrinking habitats make it difficult for the creatures to cross between gaps in tree canopies, a new study has found.

7th February 2017
dormouse

According to research by conservation group, Wildwood Trust and the Universities of Sheffield and Manchester Metropolitan, gaps in tree canopies are leaving the creatures unable to use their hypersensitive whiskers to naturally cross between habitats.

Like other rodents, dormice move their whiskers back and forth continuously in a motion called ‘whisking’ to navigate small gaps and to explore their environment.

Dr Robert Grant a lecturer in Environmental Physiology & Behaviour at Manchester Metropolitan University, who has studied dormice behaviour, said: “Dormice are nocturnal and arboreal – meaning they spend most of their time in branches of trees off of the ground. Their movement within this canopy relies on their whiskers. Hearing, vision and smell also play a role in guiding them around their environments.”

The study found that gaps in the tree canopy proved to be a major problem for the dormice, which avoid crossing open spaces. The report recommended that gaps in hazel dormice habitats need to be connected in order to help preserve numbers. Building hedgerows, habitat corridors and dormouse bridges is critical to this species’ survival, concluded the research.

Researchers monitored and recorded high-speed videos of dormice and their whisker movements using a camera that captures 500 frames per second.

The videos captured dormice walking on a flat surface, a sloped surface, exploring a gap, crossing a gap, jumping and exploring freely in flat and climbing arenas in near darkness using infrared light illumination.

The footage revealed that dormice actively and purposefully move their whiskers to gather relevant information from their canopy at night.

Dr Robyn Grant, added: “Although dormice can jump quite large distances, when the gaps between platforms were larger than 10-15cm, the dormice started behaving differently – they would eat less of the food available to them and also spend more time travelling on the floor as opposed to the canopy. This behaviour change would put the dormice in danger as this species is vulnerable to threats on the ground.”

Main image: Wildwood Trust: wildwoodtrust.org

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