The fat dormouse-A story of interrelatedness

Dormice are rodents that are predominantly found in Europe. Their numbers are connected to beech nuts and during years with lots of beech nuts they become abundant. What is so fascinating about them is that their numbers do not go up during the year following the abundant nut harvest which is the case with other animals, like the mice, but they seem to show up in droves right when the nuts are ready to be eaten, that very same year. And if there is not enough food the following year then their numbers correspond to that situation right away and there are far fewer dormice than the year before. 

People noticed this fact in the past and attributed it to the “work of the devil” like it is illustrated in this drawing from Europe below.

Fortunately we have moved on from that notion of the past. New research has shown that it is the animals’ innate intelligence and instinctual nature that is working to their benefit. Dormice go into hibernation in October and do not wake up until April/May. Upon waking up they check the beech nut food situation for that year probably by checking on the abundance or lack of beech nut flowers. If there happens to be enough food coming they stay awake and are out and about in large numbers. If that is not the case they go back to sleep and most of them do not wake up until the next spring to check on the food situation again. The overall number of dormice does not change that much like it does with mice i.e., but the number of ACTIVE dormice changes drastically every year depending on their food source situation. Their reproduction rate, unlike that of mice is slow and they live a relatively long life of up to 10 years. They are immensely important to the ecosystem as they are a major food source for lynx, fox, owls, weasels and birds of prey. 

But they also affect the food chain in many other ways: If there are lots of beech nuts, many dormice decide to stay awake and hence become food for the lynx. That year the lynx will not kill as many deer and the deer population will go up. It is the beech nuts that determine via dormice and lynx how manydeer will survive. It is that simple: Everything is truly interconnected and we cannot take anything out of the web of life. 

European dormouse. Photo: Miha Krofel

European dormouse. Photo: Miha Krofel