Controls over reproductive phenology among ungulates: allometry and tropical-temperate contrasts


N. Owen-Smith, Centre for African Ecology, School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences, Univ. of the Witwatersrand, Wits 2050, South Africa. E-mail:


Ungulates inhabiting high latitudes schedule the timing of conceptions so that offspring are born during the most favourable nutritional conditions for reproductive success. The optimal period for births is less reliably predictable in tropical and subtropical savanna environments where plant growth is governed by rainfall, suggesting that reproductive phenology could be influenced more proximately by resources affecting the body condition of females around the time of conceptions. To assess how these controls operate, we compared the timing of births and conceptions among tropical and subtropical savanna ungulates with the patterns shown by ungulates in northern temperate or subarctic latitudes. The association between the timing of births and the onset of plant growth early in the growing season is less consistent among tropical savanna ungulates than among ungulates inhabiting northern temperate environments, and apparently subject to other influences affecting vegetation phenology. Nevertheless, birth peaks seem to coincide with the time of the year when forage quality is expected to be best for offspring survival and growth for most tropical or subtropical ungulates with gestation periods shorter than a year. When gestation time exceeds one year, proximal effects of nutritional conditions around the time of conceptions apparently become overriding and birth synchrony with early season plant growth is no longer effective. Proximate nutritional influences on conceptions may also govern the somewhat diffuse spread of births shown by ungulate populations in equatorial latitudes where photoperiod cues controlling oestrus and mating cannot be used to schedule the later timing of births.