Sex- and age-dependent effects of population density on life history traits of red deer Cervus elaphus in a temperate forest


  • Christophe Bonenfant,

  • Jean-Michel Gaillard,

  • François Klein,

  • Anne Loison

C. Bonenfant, J.-M. Gaillard (correspondence: ) and A. Loison, Lab. de Biométrie et Biologie Evolutive, Unité Mixte de recherche 5558, Bâtiment 711, Univ. Lyon I, 43 Boulevard du 11 Novembre 1918, F-69622 Villeurbanne Cedex, France. – F. Klein, Office National de la Chasse, Centre National d'Etudes et de Recherches Appliquées Cervidés-sanglier, B.P. 15 Gerstheim, F-67154 Erstein Cedex, France.


We studied both the short- and long-term effects of density on three life history traits of a red deer population inhabiting a temperate forest. Both male and female body mass increased when population density decreased, but male mass changed to a greater extent than female mass. Density did not influence female survival irrespective of age, however, survival of males was lower at high density for all age classes except the prime-age class. Pregnancy rates of primiparous females increased markedly with decreasing density, whereas those of adult hinds were fairly constant and unrelated to density. For both sexes, of the studied life history traits we detected a long-term effect of density at birth (cohort effect) only on body mass. These results suggest that density influences life history traits in the same way as factors of environmental variation such as climate. In this population we did not find any evidence for an influence of climatic conditions on life history traits of red deer. Both mild winters and the absence of summer droughts during the study period could account for such an absence of climatic effects. We interpreted our results to show that 1) as expected for a highly dimorphic and polygynous species such as red deer, male traits showed consistently higher sensitivity to variation in density than female traits, illustrating possible costs caused by sexual selection in males, 2) the female-based Eberhardt's model according to which increasing density should sequentially affect juvenile survival, reproductive rates of primiparous females, reproductive rates of adults and lastly adult survival was only partly supported because we found that pregnancy rate of primiparous females rather than juvenile survival was the most sensitive trait to variation in density. We propose that including variation in male traits would improve the accuracy of models of population dynamics of large mammals, at least for highly dimorphic species. Because the population we studied was not fenced, we only measured apparent survival. We discuss how dispersal, in relation to the phenotypic quality of young deer, might be a potential regulating factor under such conditions.