Body mass and winter mortality in red deer calves: disentangling sex and climate effects



Understanding population dynamics of large mammals requires studies of variation in the age and sex–specific demographic parameters over time and the factors causing this variation. Here, we have focused on the variation in body mass of 8-10–month old red deer calves, in relation to climate and sex over a 20-yr period (1977–1997). We investigated the relationship between body mass and over–winter mortality during 1985 and 1986 and thereby, the phenotypic selection on body mass. We found a high variability from year to year in calf body mass. Males were consistently heavier than females. No interaction between sex and year was detected. The body mass of individuals from the same cohort shot during the annual hunting season and snow depth in January each explained ca 20% of the variability in calf body mass. Body mass loss during winter did not differ between sexes, but increased with body mass and varied from year to year. The probability of surviving was strongly related to body mass in each sex. For a given body mass relative to the sex–specific mean, males had a lower probability of survival than females. Hence, males had to be 1 kg larger than their mean in order to achieve the same survival as average-sized females. Our results suggested a directional phenotypic selection on body mass that led to an increasing body mass dimorphism in calves. The strength of this selection and the sex difference in the shape of the selection curve may depend, however, on the severity of winter and on sexual dimorphism in body mass at the beginning of winter.