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Winter energetics of Virginia opossums Didelphis virginiana and implications for the species’ northern distributional limit

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While climatic limitations are widely recognized as primary factors determining the distributions of many species, the physiological link between climate and species’ persistence is poorly understood. The Virginia opossum Didelphis virginiana is a species for which winter energetics have been evaluated and a northern geographical limit has been hypothesized. Expansion of opossum populations beyond this limit, however, suggests that a previous winter energetics model requires modification. I update this energetics model by incorporating random foraging success to estimate the probability of opossum survival under varying winter temperature regimes. Estimation of opossum “success” for winters in Amherst, Massachusetts, since 1926 showed that juvenile females, the key breeding component of the population, would survive at a rate high enough to maintain a stable population in only 4 of the 77 yr. The model correctly predicted the fate of 13 of 14 opossums monitored in the Amherst area during the winters of 2000–2003. The current energetics model does not correctly predict autumn weight gain, but it does accurately estimate opossum winter survival. However, the model predicts that opossums should be winter-limited in areas such as Amherst, Massachusetts, where in fact they are well established. This discrepancy may be explained in three ways: weather station data do not adequately reflect available microclimates, opossums show high levels of flexibility in cold-weather foraging behavior, and most likely, humans provide food and shelter that mitigate the effect of winter.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: December 1, 2005

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