Asynchronous vegetation phenology enhances winter body condition of a large mobile herbivore

Kate R. Searle, Mindy B. Rice, Charles R. Anderson, Chad Bishop, N. T. Hobbs

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations

Abstract

Understanding how spatial and temporal heterogeneity influence ecological processes forms a central challenge in ecology. Individual responses to heterogeneity shape population dynamics, therefore understanding these responses is central to sustainable population management. Emerging evidence has shown that herbivores track heterogeneity in nutritional quality of vegetation by responding to phenological differences in plants. We quantified the benefits mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) accrue from accessing habitats with asynchronous plant phenology in northwest Colorado over 3 years. Our analysis examined both the direct physiological and indirect environmental effects of weather and vegetation phenology on mule deer winter body condition. We identified several important effects of annual weather patterns and topographical variables on vegetation phenology in the home ranges of mule deer. Crucially, temporal patterns of vegetation phenology were linked with differences in body condition, with deer tending to show poorer body condition in areas with less asynchronous vegetation green-up and later vegetation onset. The direct physiological effect of previous winter precipitation on mule deer body condition was much less important than the indirect effect mediated by vegetation phenology. Additionally, the influence of vegetation phenology on body fat was much stronger than that of overall vegetation productivity. In summary, changing annual weather patterns, particularly in relation to seasonal precipitation, have the potential to alter body condition of this important ungulate species during the critical winter period. This finding highlights the importance of maintaining large contiguous areas of spatially and temporally variable resources to allow animals to compensate behaviourally for changing climate-driven resource patterns.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)377-391
Number of pages15
JournalOecologia
Volume179
Issue number2
DOIs
StatePublished - Oct 22 2015

Keywords

  • Climate change
  • Mule deer
  • Spatial heterogeneity
  • Temporal heterogeneity
  • Western Colorado

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