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Keywords:

  • dendrochronology;
  • effective rainfall;
  • habitat use;
  • herbivore;
  • phenology;
  • precipitation;
  • predation-risk;
  • riparian;
  • topoedaphic;
  • water logging

Abstract

Low spring temperatures have been found to benefit mobile herbivores by reducing the rate of spring-flush, whereas high rainfall increases forage availability. Cold winters prove detrimental, by increasing herbivore thermoregulatory burdens. Here we examine the effects of temperature and rainfall variability on a temperate sedentary herbivore, the Eurasian beaver, Castor fiber, in terms of inter-annual variation in mean body weight and per territory offspring production. Data pertain to 198 individuals, over 11 years, using capture-mark-recapture. We use plant growth (tree cores) and fAPAR (a satellite-derived plant productivity index) to examine potential mechanisms through which weather conditions affect the availability and the seasonal phenology of beaver forage. Juvenile body weights were lighter after colder winters, whereas warmer spring temperatures were associated with lighter adult body weights, mediated by enhanced green-up phenology rates. Counter-intuitively, we observed a negative association between rainfall and body weight in juveniles and adults, and also with reproductive success. Alder, Alnus incana, (n = 68) growth rings (principal beaver food in the study area) exhibited a positive relationship with rainfall for trees growing at elevations >2 m above water level, but a negative relationship for trees growing <0.5 m. We deduce that temperature influences beavers at the landscape scale via effects on spring green-up phenology and winter thermoregulation. Rainfall influences beavers at finer spatial scales through topographical interactions with plant growth, where trees near water level, prone to water logging, producing poorer forage in wetter years. Unlike most other herbivores, beavers are an obligate aquatic species that utilize a restricted ‘central-place’ foraging range, limiting their ability to take advantage of better forage growth further from water during wetter years. With respect to anthropogenic climate change, interactions between weather variables, plant phenology and topography on forage growth are instructive, and consequently warrant examination when developing conservation management strategies for populations of medium to large herbivores.