Feedback effects of chronic browsing on life-history traits of a large herbivore

Authors


*Correspondence author. E-mail: steeve.cote@bio.ulaval.ca

Summary

  • 1Increasing ungulate populations are affecting vegetation negatively in many areas, but few studies have assessed the long-term effects of overbrowsing on individual life-history traits of ungulates.
  • 2Using an insular population of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus Zimmermann; Anticosti, Québec, Canada) introduced in 1896, and whose density has remained high since the first evidence of severe browsing in the 1930s, we investigated potential feedbacks of long-term and heavy browsing on deer life-history traits.
  • 3We assessed whether chronic browsing contributed to a decline of the quality of deer diet in early autumn during the last 25 years, and evaluated the impacts of reduced diet quality on deer body condition and reproduction.
  • 4Rumen nitrogen content declined 22% between two time periods, 1977–79 and 2002–04, indicating a reduction in diet quality.
  • 5After accounting for the effects of year within the time period, age and date of harvest in autumn, peak body mass of both sexes declined between the two time periods. At the end of November, males were on average 12% heavier and adult does 6% heavier in 1977–79 than in 2002–04. Hind foot length did not vary between time periods.
  • 6The probability of conception increased 15% between the two time periods, but litter size at ovulation declined 7%, resulting in a similar total number of ovulations in 2002–04 and in 1977–79.
  • 7Our results suggest that following a decline in diet quality, white-tailed deer females modified their life-history strategies to maintain reproduction at the expense of growth.
  • 8Deer appear to tolerate drastic reductions in diet quality by modifying their life history traits, such as body mass and reproduction, before a reduction in density is observed. Such modifications may contribute to maintain high population density of large herbivores following population irruption.

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