The concentration of fear: mice's behavioural and physiological stress responses to different degrees of predation risk
Predation is an unavoidable and dangerous fact in the lifetime of prey animals and some sign of the proximity of a predator may be enough to trigger a response in the prey. We investigated whether different degrees of predation risk by red foxes ( Vulpes vulpes) evoke behavioural and physiological stress responses in wood mice ( Apodemus sylvaticus) . We examined the variation in mice responses due to individual factors (sex and reproductive status) and related them to the concentration of the volatile compounds from fox faeces over time. In our experiment, we introduced predation cues into four plots, each subjected to a different concentration treatment (0, 10, 50 and 100% concentration of fresh faeces of red fox), based on the following outline: initial odourless phase 0, phase1 in which predation treatment was renewed daily, and phase 2 in which we renewed the treatment only on the first day. Wood mice were live trapped during all three phases and the physiological response was measured non-invasively by analysing faecal corticosterone metabolites (FCM) in freshly collected faeces. Data were analysed by Generalized Linear Mixed Models. Overall, males were trapped less often than females, and reproductively active individuals from both sexes avoided traps more than non-reproductively active individuals, especially in medium- and high- concentration plots. Variations in FCM concentrations were explained by plot, the interaction between plot and treatment phase, and the interaction between the treatment phase and the reproductive status. During phase 1, we detected a significant rise in FCM levels that increased with predator faecal odour concentration. Additionally, reproductively active individuals showed a strong physiological response during both phases 1 and 2 in all plots, except the control plot. Our results indicated that wood mice are able to discriminate different degrees of predation risk, which allows them to trigger gradual changes in their behavioural and physiological stress responses.