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Characteristics of foraging sites and protein status in wintering muskoxen: insights from isotopes of nitrogen

January 1, 2011

Identifying links between nutritional condition of individuals and population trajectories greatly enhances our understanding of the ecology, conservation, and management of wildlife. For northern ungulates, the potential impacts of a changing climate to populations are predicted to be nutritionally mediated through an increase in the severity and variance in winter conditions. Foraging conditions and the availability of body protein as a store for reproduction in late winter may constrain productivity in northern ungulates, yet the link between characteristics of wintering habitats and protein status has not been established for a wild ungulate. We used a non‐invasive proxy of protein status derived from isotopes of N in excreta to evaluate the influence of winter habitats on the protein status of muskoxen in three populations in Alaska (2005–2008). Multiple regression and an information‐theoretic approach were used to compare models that evaluated the influence of population, year, and characteristics of foraging sites (components of diet and physiography) on protein status for groups of muskoxen. The observed variance in protein status among groups of muskoxen across populations and years was partially explained (45%) by local foraging conditions that affected forage availability. Protein status improved for groups of muskoxen as the amount of graminoids in the diet increased (−0.430 ± 0.31, β± 95% CI) and elevation of foraging sites decreased (0.824 ± 0.67). Resources available for reproduction in muskoxen are highly dependent upon demographic, environmental, and physiographic constraints that affect forage availability in winter. Due to their very sedentary nature in winter, muskoxen are highly susceptible to localized foraging conditions; therefore, the spatial variance in resource availability may exert a strong effect on productivity. Consequently, there is a clear need to account for climate–topography effects in winter at multiple scales when predicting the potential impacts of climatic shifts on population trajectories of muskoxen.

Publication Year 2011
Title Characteristics of foraging sites and protein status in wintering muskoxen: insights from isotopes of nitrogen
DOI 10.1111/j.1600-0706.2011.19215.x
Authors David D. Gustine, Perry S. Barboza, James P. Lawler, Stephen M. Arthur, Brad S. Shults, Kate Persons, Layne G. Adams
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Oikos
Index ID 70034326
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Alaska Science Center