Critical summer foraging tradeoffs in a subarctic ungulate

Libby Ehlers, Gabrielle Coulombe, Jim Herriges, Torsten Bentzen, Michael Suitor, Kyle Joly, Mark Hebblewhite

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    Abstract

    Summer diets are crucial for large herbivores in the subarctic and are affected by weather, harassment from insects and a variety of environmental changes linked to climate. Yet, understanding foraging behavior and diet of large herbivores is challenging in the subarctic because of their remote ranges. We used GPS video-camera collars to observe behaviors and summer diets of the migratory Fortymile Caribou Herd (Rangifer tarandus granti) across Alaska, USA and the Yukon, Canada. First, we characterized caribou behavior. Second, we tested if videos could be used to quantify changes in the probability of eating events. Third, we estimated summer diets at the finest taxonomic resolution possible through videos. Finally, we compared summer diet estimates from video collars to microhistological analysis of fecal pellets. We classified 18,134 videos from 30 female caribou over two summers (2018 and 2019). Caribou behaviors included eating (mean = 43.5%), ruminating (25.6%), travelling (14.0%), stationary awake (11.3%) and napping (5.1%). Eating was restricted by insect harassment. We classified forage(s) consumed in 5,549 videos where diet composition (monthly) highlighted a strong tradeoff between lichens and shrubs; shrubs dominated diets in June and July when lichen use declined. We identified 63 species, 70 genus and 33 family groups of summer forages from videos. After adjusting for digestibility, monthly estimates of diet composition were strongly correlated at the scale of the forage functional type (i.e., forage groups composed of forbs, graminoids, mosses, shrubs and lichens; r = 0.79, p <.01). Using video collars, we identified (1) a pronounced tradeoff in summer foraging between lichens and shrubs and (2) the costs of insect harassment on eating. Understanding caribou foraging ecology is needed to plan for their long-term conservation across the circumpolar north, and video collars can provide a powerful approach across remote regions.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)17835-17872
    Number of pages38
    JournalEcology and Evolution
    Volume11
    Issue number24
    DOIs
    StatePublished - Dec 2021

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