Cover provides shelter, food, nesting opportunities and protection from predators. The behavioural response of small mammals to reduced cover has been well documented. However, very little is known about the effect of cover on community and population dynamics. Australian small mammals generally inhabit extremely dynamic ecosystems, where cover and food supplies are greatly affected by fire. Species are described as early or late seral specialists, generally returning to a disturbed area once their habitat requirements are met. Habitat requirements have loosely been interpreted as cover and food supply, however, these factors are not mutually exclusive and few studies have attempted to determine the driving factors behind small mammal succession. In this study, we manipulated specific aspects of cover in the eucalypt forests of Fraser Island and show that the behaviour and population dynamics of small mammals were greatly affected. A reduction of cover from grass-trees (Xanthorrhoea johnsonii) did not affect small mammal species composition, however, the abundance and size structure distribution of the dominant species (Rattus fuscipes) decreased. Patch use by rodents also decreased after cover was reduced. Rattus fuscipes must trade-off remaining in an environment with increased risk of predation, or disperse to an area with greater cover but increased competition. Juveniles dominated (> 60%) populations of R. fuscipes after cover was reduced, however, size distributions of control sites were relatively more even (< 25% juvenile). While adult R. fuscipes are either killed by predators or disperse to other areas, juveniles that remained or immigrated to an area of reduced cover gained a selective advantage over those in control sites, because reduced competition with adults increased body condition of juvenile R. fuscipes.
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