Density dependent and temporal variability in habitat selection by a large herbivore; an experimental approach


  • Ragnhild Mobæk,

  • Atle Mysterud,

  • Leif Egil Loe,

  • Øystein Holand,

  • Gunnar Austrheim

R. Mobæk and Ø. Holand, Dept of Animal- and Aquacultural Sciences, Norwegian Univ. of Life Sciences, PO Box 5003, NO–1432 Ås, Norway. – A. Mysterud ( and L. E. Loe, Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary Synthesis (CEES), Dept of Biology, Univ. of Oslo, PO Box 1066 Blindern, NO–0316 Oslo, Norway. – G. Austrheim, Museum of Natural History and Archaeology, Section of Natural History, Norwegian Univ. of Science and Technology, NO–7491 Trondheim, Norway.


Both density dependent and density independent processes such as climate affect population dynamics in large herbivores. Understanding herbivore foraging patterns is essential to identify the underlying mechanisms behind variation in vital rates. However, very little is known about how animals vary their selection of habitat temporally, alone or in interaction with density during summer. At the foraging scale, we tested using a fully replicated experiment whether domestic sheep Ovis aries stocked at high (80 per km2) and low (25 per km2) densities (spatial contrasts) varied their habitat selection temporally over a four year period. We predicted reduced selection of high productivity vegetation types with increasing density, and that seasonal and annual variation in climate would affect this density dependent selection pattern by increasing competition for high quality habitats in late grazing season and in years with poor vegetation development and over time related to vegetation responses to grazing. As predicted from the Ideal free distribution model, selection of high productivity habitat decreased at high density. There was also a marked temporal variation in habitat selection. Selection of the most productive vegetation types declined towards the end of each grazing season, but increased over years both at low and high sheep density. There was only weak evidence for interactions, as selection ratio of highly productive habitats tended to increase more over years at low density as compared to high density. Limited interactive effects of density and annual variation on habitat selection during summer may explain why similar interactions in vital rates have rarely been reported for summer seasons. Our results are consistent with the view that variation in habitat selection is a central mechanism for climate and density related variation in vital rates.