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

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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.

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Acknowledgments

We wish to thank D. Bilyeu-Johnston and E. Bergman for insightful comments on this manuscript. Our project was funded and supported by CPW. This project was supported by both mammal and avian research sections of CPW and by D. Freddy and M. Michaels from CPW who administered the project. Searle and Hobbs were supported in part by an award from the National Science Foundation (DEB 0444711) to Colorado State University. Additionally, we thank numerous technicians for field support and coordination. We thank Quicksilver Air for assistance in capturing deer from helicopters and L. Gepfert and L. Coulter for fixed-wing aircraft support. Both the mammal and avian research sections and L. Wolfe, and D. Finley of CPW are thanked for crucial assistance during capture efforts. Additional funding and support came from Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration, the Colorado Mule Deer Association, the Colorado Mule Deer Foundation, Colorado Oil and the Gas Conservation Commission, Williams Production, EnCana, ExxonMobil Production, Shell Petroleum, and Marathon Oil. We also thank the White River Bureau of Land Management and numerous private land owners for their cooperation. Finally, we wish to thank A. Butler for his advice on statistical analysis.

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Correspondence to Kate R. Searle.

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Communicated by Göran C. Ericsson.

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Searle, K.R., Rice, M.B., Anderson, C.R. et al. Asynchronous vegetation phenology enhances winter body condition of a large mobile herbivore. Oecologia 179, 377–391 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-015-3348-9

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Keywords

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