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Moose habitat selection and fitness consequences during two critical winter tick life stages in Vermont, United States

May 17, 2021

The moose (Alces alces) is a charismatic species in decline across much of their southern distribution in North America. In the northeastern United States, much of the reduction has been attributed to winter tick (Dermacentor albipictus) infestations. Winter ticks are fairly immobile throughout all life stages, and therefore their distribution patterns at any given time are shaped largely by the occurrence of moose across the landscape during the peak of two critical time periods: fall questing (when ticks latch onto moose) and spring drop-off (when engorged female ticks detach from moose). We used recent land cover and lidar data within a dynamic occupancy modeling framework to estimate first-order habitat selection (use vs. non-use) of female moose (n = 74) during the tick questing and drop-off periods. Patch extinction and colonization rates between the fall questing and spring drop-off periods were strongly influenced by habitat and elevation, but these effects were diminished during the fall questing period when moose were more active across the landscape. From the fall questing period to the spring drop-off period, patches where colonization was high and extinction was low had higher proportions of young (shrub/forage) mixed forest at higher elevations. Further, we evaluated the fitness consequences of habitat selection by adult females during the fall questing period, when females and their calves acquire ticks. We compared Resource Selection Functions (RSF) for five females that successfully reared a calf to age 1 with five females whose calves perished due to ticks. Adult female moose whose offspring perished selected habitats in the fall that spatially coincided with areas of high occupancy probability during the spring tick drop-off period. In contrast, adult female moose whose offspring survived selected areas where the probability of occupancy during the spring drop-off was low; at present, natural selection may favor female adults who do not select the same habitats in fall as in spring. Our model coefficients and mapped results define “hotspots” that are likely encouraging the deleterious effects of the tick-moose cycle. These findings fill knowledge gaps about moose habitat selection that may improve the effectiveness of management aimed at reversing declining population trends.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2021
Title Moose habitat selection and fitness consequences during two critical winter tick life stages in Vermont, United States
DOI 10.3389/fevo.2021.642276
Authors Joshua Blouin, Jacob Debow, Elias Rosenblatt, James E. Hines, Cedric Alexander, Katherina Gieder, Nicholas Fortin, James Murdoch, Therese M. Donovan
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution
Series Number
Index ID 70229404
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Coop Res Unit Leetown