Population Ecology


, Volume 143, Issue 1, pp 85-93

First online:

Density-dependent effects on physical condition and reproduction in North American elk: an experimental test

  • Kelley M. StewartAffiliated withInstitute of Arctic Biology, and Department of Biology and Wildlife, University of Alaska Fairbanks Email author 
  • , R. Terry. BowyerAffiliated withInstitute of Arctic Biology, and Department of Biology and Wildlife, University of Alaska FairbanksDepartment of Biological Sciences, Idaho State University
  • , Brian L. DickAffiliated withUnited States Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station
  • , Bruce K. JohnsonAffiliated withOregon Department of Fish and Wildlife
  • , John G. KieAffiliated withUnited States Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station

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Density dependence plays a key role in life-history characteristics and population ecology of large, herbivorous mammals. We designed a manipulative experiment to test hypotheses relating effects of density-dependent mechanisms on physical condition and fecundity of North American elk (Cervus elaphus) by creating populations at low and high density. We hypothesized that if density-dependent effects were manifested principally through intraspecific competition, body condition and fecundity of females would be lower in an area of high population density than in a low-density area. Thus, we collected data on physical condition and rates of pregnancy in each experimental population. Our manipulative experiment indicated that density-dependent feedbacks affected physical condition and reproduction of adult female elk. Age-specific pregnancy rates were lower in the high-density area, although there were no differences in pregnancy of yearlings or in age at peak reproduction between areas. Age-specific rates of pregnancy began to diverge at 2 years of age between the two populations and peaked at 6 years old. Pregnancy rates were most affected by body condition and mass, although successful reproduction the previous year also reduced pregnancy rates during the current year. Our results indicated that while holding effects of winter constant, density-dependent mechanisms had a much greater effect on physical condition and fecundity than density-independent factors (e.g., precipitation and temperature). Moreover, our results demonstrated effects of differing nutrition resulting from population density during summer on body condition and reproduction. Thus, summer is a critical period for accumulation of body stores to buffer animals against winter; more emphasis should be placed on the role of spring and summer nutrition on population regulation in large, northern herbivores.


Body mass Body condition Cervus elaphus Lactation Pregnancy