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Snow avalanches are a primary climate-linked driver of mountain ungulate populations

April 29, 2024

Snow is a major, climate-sensitive feature of the Earth’s surface and catalyst of fundamentally important ecosystem processes. Understanding how snow influences sentinel species in rapidly changing mountain ecosystems is particularly critical. Whereas effects of snow on food availability, energy expenditure, and predation are well documented, we report how avalanches exert major impacts on an ecologically significant mountain ungulate - the coastal Alaskan mountain goat (Oreamnos americanus). Using long-term GPS data and field observations across four populations (421 individuals over 17 years), we show that avalanches caused 23−65% of all mortality, depending on area. Deaths varied seasonally and were directly linked to spatial movement patterns and avalanche terrain use. Population-level avalanche mortality, 61% of which comprised reproductively important prime-aged individuals, averaged 8% annually and exceeded 22% when avalanche conditions were severe. Our findings reveal a widespread but previously undescribed pathway by which snow can elicit major population-level impacts and shape demographic characteristics of slow-growing populations of mountain-adapted animals.

Publication Year 2024
Title Snow avalanches are a primary climate-linked driver of mountain ungulate populations
DOI 10.1038/s42003-024-06073-0
Authors Kevin White, Eran Hood, Gabriel Wolken, Erich Peitzsch, Yves Bühler, Katreen Wikstrom Jones, Chris Darimont
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Nature Communications Biology
Index ID 70254152
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center