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Food constraints explain the restricted distribution of wintering Lesser White-fronted Geese Anser erythropus in China

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Corresponding author.

Email: caolei@ustc.edu.cn

Abstract

More than 90% of the Lesser White-fronted Geese Anser erythropus in the Eastern Palearctic flyway population winter at East Dongting Lake, China. To explain this restricted distribution and to understand better the winter feeding ecology and habitat requirements of this poorly known species, we assessed their food availability, diet and energy budgets at this site through two winters. Lesser White-fronted Geese maintained a positive energy budget when feeding on above-ground green production of Eleocharis and Alopecurus in recessional grasslands in autumn and spring to accumulate fat stores. Such food was severely depleted by late November and showed no growth in mid-winter. Geese fed on more extensive old-growth Carex sedge meadows in mid-winter where they were in energy deficit and depleted endogenous fat stores. Geese failed to accumulate autumn fat stores in one year when high water levels prevented the Geese from using recessional grassland feeding areas. Fat stores remained lower throughout that winter and Geese left for breeding areas later in spring than in the previous year, perhaps reflecting the need to gain threshold fat stores for migration. Sedge meadows are widespread at other Yangtze River floodplain wetlands, but recessional grasslands are rare and perhaps restricted to parts of East Dongting Lake, which would explain the highly localized distribution of Lesser White-fronted Geese in China and their heavy use of these habitats at this site. Sympathetic management of water tables is essential to maintain the recessional grasslands in the best condition for Geese. Regular depletion of fat stores whilst grazing sedge meadows in mid-winter also underlines the need to protect the species from unnecessary anthropogenic disturbances that enhance energy expenditure. The specialized diet of the Lesser White-fronted Goose may explain its highly restricted winter distribution and global rarity.

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