Inferring parturition and neonate survival from movement patterns of female ungulates: a case study using woodland caribou



Analyses of animal movement data have primarily focused on understanding patterns of space use and the behavioural processes driving them. Here, we analyzed animal movement data to infer components of individual fitness, specifically parturition and neonate survival. We predicted that parturition and neonate loss events could be identified by sudden and marked changes in female movement patterns. Using GPS radio-telemetry data from female woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou), we developed and tested two novel movement-based methods for inferring parturition and neonate survival. The first method estimated movement thresholds indicative of parturition and neonate loss from population-level data then applied these thresholds in a moving-window analysis on individual time-series data. The second method used an individual-based approach that discriminated among three a priori models representing the movement patterns of non-parturient females, females with surviving offspring, and females losing offspring. The models assumed that step lengths (the distance between successive GPS locations) were exponentially distributed and that abrupt changes in the scale parameter of the exponential distribution were indicative of parturition and offspring loss. Both methods predicted parturition with near certainty (>97% accuracy) and produced appropriate predictions of parturition dates. Prediction of neonate survival was affected by data quality for both methods; however, when using high quality data (i.e., with few missing GPS locations), the individual-based method performed better, predicting neonate survival status with an accuracy rate of 87%. Understanding ungulate population dynamics often requires estimates of parturition and neonate survival rates. With GPS radio-collars increasingly being used in research and management of ungulates, our movement-based methods represent a viable approach for estimating rates of both parameters.