Meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus)

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Meadow vole
IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern LEAST
CONCERN

Top facts

  • A highly adaptable species, the meadow vole can be found in a variety of habitats, although it shows a preference for moist grassland areas with thick grassy cover.
  • The meadow vole is North America’s most widespread Microtus species.
  • The size and colour of the meadow vole varies depending on location, but the species is generally dark brown above and silvery-grey below.
  • A prolific species, the meadow vole can produce up to 11 young per litter, and more than 10 litters per year.
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Meadow vole fact file

Meadow vole description

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassMammalia
OrderRodentia
FamilyCricetidae
GenusMicrotus (1)

A relatively large vole (3), the meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus) has a rounded, stocky body (3) (4) and a blunt nose (4). Compared to those of most rodents, the meadow vole’s whiskers are relatively inconspicuous (4). The ears of this species are small and rounded (3) (4) (5) and are partially hidden in the fur (3) (5), and the eyes are also small (4).

The meadow vole has short legs (4), while its scantily haired tail is rather long, usually being at least twice as long as the hind foot (2) (3) (4). The dense, soft fur of the meadow vole is overlaid with some coarser hairs (3), but is still much finer overall than that of some other vole species (2).

The upperparts of the meadow vole are dull chestnut-brown (3) to dark brown (2) (5) with numerous interspersed black hairs (3), while the sides are slightly paler (2). The belly is blackish with a frosting of white (6), which gives it a silvery-grey appearance (2) (3) (5). The meadow vole’s feet and tail are darker above and paler below (2) (3). In the winter, the fur tends to become darker and greyer (2) (3).

The size and colour of the meadow vole varies depending on geographic location, with individuals from more southerly parts of its range generally being larger and much darker (3). There are currently several recognised subspecies of meadow vole (3) (6).

Newborn meadow voles are hairless (6), but grow brown fur by the third day (3). Young voles tend to be much darker than adults, with black feet and a black tail (2) (3).

Also known as
Chihuahua vole, field mouse, Florida salt marsh vole, meadow mouse, saltmarsh vole.
Size
Total length: 120 - 196 mm (2) (3)
Tail length: 32 - 63 mm (2) (3)
Average adult weight: 21 - 63 g (2)
Newborn weight: 1.6 - 3 g (3)
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Meadow vole biology

Although it tends to favour early morning and late afternoon (3), the meadow vole is active both day and night throughout the year (1) (3) (5) (6). In warmer conditions, this species is generally more active at night (3) (6), whereas in areas of high grass cover it is more active in the daytime (3).

The meadow vole spends much time above ground, and although it does not climb, it is a capable swimmer (3). This species builds extensive runway systems and tunnels which may be above or just below the ground (1) (2) (5) (6). Piles of plant cuttings can be found scattered along the runways (5) where the voles have used their sharp teeth to cut down vegetation to keep the pathways clear (3). Communal toilet areas are located at irregular intervals along the runway systems (3).

Considered to be a highly herbivorous species (5), the meadow vole eats a wide variety of plant material, including the roots, leaves and stems of grasses and herbs (1) (3) (5) (6), with more than 90 percent of its diet being made up of vegetable matter (5). If the opportunity arises, the meadow vole will also eat seeds, grains and bulbs (6), as well as bark from trees and shrubs (3) (6). This species can eat more than its own body weight in food in just 24 hours (3).

Roots, tubers, leaves and other plant parts may be stored by the meadow vole as a cache for the winter months (3) (6), and in the spring this species has been known to fell dwarf willows to eat the fruiting bodies (3). Although the meadow vole has been recorded eating insects, this is a relatively rare occurrence (3) (6).

The meadow vole is a promiscuous species (3), and breeds throughout the year (1) (5), with pheromones in male urine stimulating the females to reproduce (3). Peak breeding activity occurs in spring and autumn (6), from March to November (3). The gestation period is about 20 to 21 days (1) (3) (5) (6), after which time the female meadow vole gives birth to a litter of about 4 or 5 young (1) (5), although the litter may contain as few as 1 (1) (3) and as many as 11 young (3). Litter sizes tend to be larger on average in the spring and summer, and a female meadow vole can produce 10 or more litters per year (1), with one captive female recorded to have raised 17 litters in a year (3).

Young are born and raised in a nest constructed on the surface of the ground or just beneath it (1) (2) (3) (5), or in the centre of a grass tussock in swampy areas (3). The nest itself is a globular structure constructed with dry, shredded grass and sedges (2) (3) (5) (6). The young mature very quickly and are weaned at about 12 to 14 days old (3) (5) (6), with young females being ready to breed at less than a month old (3) (5) (6). Female meadow voles are capable of breeding again almost straight away after giving birth (5).

In the wild, the meadow vole rarely survives longer than about a year, but in captivity individuals of this species have been known to live for up to five years (5).
 

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Meadow vole range

The meadow vole occupies an extensive range over the northern half of North America (2), and is the continent’s most widespread Microtus species (3) (4).

This species is found throughout most of Alaska and Canada (1) (3), including Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario and Nova Scotia, and south through the northern half of the United States (1). The meadow vole’s range in the United States includes Wisconsin, Michigan, northern Illinois and Montana, and extends southwards to South Carolina and Georgia, and westwards north-eastern Washington, New Mexico and Utah (1) (3). In addition, the meadow vole occurs in Chihuahua, Mexico, earning it the alternative name of ‘Chihuahua vole’ (1), and a small population is also found on the west coast of Florida (1) (5).

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Meadow vole habitat

The meadow vole is a highly adaptable species (3), and occupies a wide variety of habitats (1) (3). However, it is most often found in wet meadows, swampy pastures and moist grasslands with thick grassy cover where it can shelter and find food (2) (3) (5) (6). Areas of bluegrass (Poa compressa) are especially favoured by the meadow vole (3) (6), and the rodent requires loose, organic soil for tunnelling (1).

The meadow vole can also be found in drier pastures and grasslands (1) (2), although in such areas this species tends to occur near streams, lakes or swamps (2).

Except for in hayfields or meadow-type crops such as wheat or clover, the meadow vole rarely occurs in agricultural habitats (3), but it is known to be found in orchards with good ground cover (1) (3) (5). Other habitat types in which this species has been recorded include marshes (1) (6), wooded swamps (1), grassy opening in forests, open woodlands (5) and even gardens (6). Strips of dense grass along roadsides and drainage ditches also provide areas of suitable habitat for the meadow vole (2) (3).

The Florida population of the meadow vole lives in coastal salt marsh (3) (5).

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Meadow vole status

The meadow vole is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern

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Meadow vole threats

The meadow vole is a common and widespread species in North America, and is not currently known to be facing any major threats (1). However, it is an important source of food for predatory birds and mammals (3) (5) such as weasels (Mustela nivalis), stoats (Mustela erminea) and even house cats (3).

At high population levels, the meadow vole is known to cause severe damage to field crops, pastures, orchards and gardens as a result of its feeding habits (1) (3) (5). In south-eastern Kentucky, this species is thriving and is outcompeting and displacing the southern bog lemming (Synaptomys cooperi) (1).

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Meadow vole conservation

There are currently no known specific conservation measures in place for the meadow vole. However, this species is known to occur in several protected areas (1), and the subspecies Microtus pennsylvanicus dukecampbelli, known as the Florida salt marsh vole, was listed as an endangered species in 1991 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (5).

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Find out more

Find out more about the meadow vole:

  • Feldhamer, G.A., Thompson, B.C. and Chapman, J.A. (2003) Wild Mammals of North America: Biology, Management, and Conservation. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.

Find out more about small mammal conservation:

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Authentication

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

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Glossary

Gestation
The state of being pregnant; the period from conception to birth.
Herb
A small, non-woody, seed bearing plant in which all the aerial parts die back at the end of each growing season.
Herbivorous
Having a diet that comprises only vegetable matter.
Pheromone
A chemical produced by an animal, which stimulates a behavioural or physiological response by another member of the same species.
Promiscuous
Mating with more than one individual without forming any permanent bonds.
Subspecies
A population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
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References

  1. IUCN Red List (October, 2013)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Schwartz, C.W. and Schwartz, E.R. (2001) The Wild Mammals of Missouri. University of Missouri Press, Columbia, Missouri.
  3. Whitaker, J.O. and Hamilton, W.J. (1998) Mammals of the Eastern United States. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York.
  4. Feldhamer, G.A., Thompson, B.C. and Chapman, J.A. (2003) Wild Mammals of North America: Biology, Management, and Conservation. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.
  5. Brown, L.N. (1997) A Guide to the Mammals of the Southeastern United States. University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, Tennessee.
  6. Hoffmeister, D.F. (2002) Mammals of Illinois. University of Illinois Press, Chicago.
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Meadow vole

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