Winter browsing on Alaska feltleaf willow twigs improves leaf nutritional value for snowshoe hares in summer


  • John P. Bryant

J. P. Bryant, Inst. of Arctic Biology, Univ. of Alaska at Fairbanks, Fairbanks, Alaska 99775-7000, USA (


In boreal forests, browsing by mammals on winter-dormant twigs increases leaf nitrogen, leaf greenness, and leaf size. This suggests browsing reduces competition among meristems for mineral nutrients, and in particular, competition for nitrogen. Winter browsing also reduces the shoot carbohydrate reserves used by leaves to produce condensed tannin. These effects of winter browsing are predicted to improve the nutritional value of leaves for mammals because they increase the mass of digestible nitrogen in leaves. This hypothesis was tested using Alaska feltleaf willow and the snowshoe hare as the experimental system. Six in vivo indicators of leaf nutritional quality were used to compare leaves from winter-browsed plants with leaves from unbrowsed plants. The indicators used were dry matter intake, nitrogen intake, condensed tannin intake, dry matter digestibility, apparent digestibility of nitrogen and nitrogen retention. The results obtained were in agreement with the above hypothesis. In early summer, at the time snowshoe hares and other northern herbivores reproduce, hares fed leaves from browsed plants consumed more nitrogen, digested more of the nitrogen they consumed, and retained more of the nitrogen they digested than did hares fed leaves from unbrowsed plants. The high nitrogen content and low tannin content of leaves from browsed plants may explain this browsing caused increase in leaf nutritional value. How these positive effects of winter browsing on snowshoe hare nutrition at the time of reproduction might affect hare population dynamics are briefly discussed.