, Volume 10, Issue 1, pp 51-62

Natural regulation of cervidae along a 1000 km latitudinal gradient: Change in trophic dominance

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Summary

The biomass of forage, herbivores (caribou and moose) and predators (wolf) were estimated for four assemblages of large mammals along a latitudinal gradient in the Québec-Labrador peninsula and related to predictions made by two types of multitrophic level models. Wolves were present in three study areas, but they had been extirpated in the last one. Annual production of preferred forage exhibited a clear north-south increase for moose, but not for caribou. Neither the herbivore nor predator biomass increased along the latitudinal gradient: the highest herbivore biomass occurred in the wolf-free area and in the northernmost site, while the greatest predator density was observed in the southernmost site. Consequently, the ratio of the herbivore to forage biomass was the highest in the area devoid of wolves and in the northernmost site occupied by migratory caribou. Availability of forage per herbivore was the greatest in the moose-wolf and the caribou-moose-wolf assemblages. The observed data supported the multitrophic level model incorporating classical predator-prey relationships and producing stepwise accrual of trophic level biomass with increasing food chain length. In the northernmost site, the system was limited to two functional trophic levels and caribou were regulated by summer forage. Three functional trophic levels appeared to exist in the central study area where caribou and moose were preyed upon by wolves. Both herbivores were at very low density, the first one due probably to its poor adaptation to predation and the second because of an unproductive range. In the southernmost site, moose were clearly regulated by predation and kept much below the carrying capacity. With the extirpation of wolves in the last study area, moose were regulated by forage and the density exceeded that in the moose-wolf system by seven times even in a less productive range. Caribou, having primarily evolved under resource limitation, is replaced by a cervid better adapted to predation, the moose, in more productive ‘three-link’ ecosystems.