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Adaptive regulation of body reserves in reindeer, Rangifer tarandus: a feeding experiment


  • Per Fauchald,

  • Torkild Tveraa,

  • Cathrine Henaug,

  • Nigel Yoccoz

P. Fauchald, T. Tveraa, C. Henaug and N. Yoccoz, Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, Division for Arctic Ecology, The Polar Environmental Centre, NO-9296 Tromsø, Norway (


The costs and benefits of body reserves fluctuate according to predictable factors such as season and life-cycle stage. Theory suggests that individuals at any time should regulate their body reserves according to the current balance between costs and benefits. Most studies on adaptive body mass regulation have been done on small passerine birds. In large vertebrates the costs associated with body reserves are assumed to be small and the reserves of these species are therefore thought to be dictated by environmental limitations. In this study we present experimental evidence for adaptive body mass regulation in female semi-domesticated reindeer (Rangifer t. tarandus). The risk of starvation in this species is highest in late winter. During snow melt this risk is reduced and the females should direct their effort towards the protection of their new born calf. To test how these seasonal and life-cycle changes are related to body mass regulation, we conducted a crossed experiment with two treatments where females were fed ad libitum during winter and spring respectively. During winter, the females from the fed group gained on average 12% of their initial body weight while the females from natural pastures lost on average 6% of their initial body weight. This strong response to winter feeding had no effect on reproductive performance, and the previously fed females lost their excess of body reserves during feeding in spring. This suggests that body reserves during winter primarily is used as an insurance against stochastic periods of starvation and that the females regulate their body reserves down to a set point in spring when the risk is reduced. We found however a positive correlation between initial female body weight and reproductive performance suggesting a close relationship between body weight and intrinsic individual qualities.