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Spring phenology drives range shifts in a migratory Arctic ungulate with key implications for the future

May 16, 2021

Annual variation in phenology can have profound effects on the behavior of animals. As climate change advances spring phenology in ecosystems around the globe, it is becoming increasingly important to understand how animals respond to variation in the timing of seasonal events and how their responses may shift in the future. We investigated the influence of spring phenology on the behavior of migratory, barren-ground caribou (Rangifer tarandus), a species that has evolved to cope with short Arctic summers. Specifically, we examined the effect of spring snow melt and vegetation growth on the current and potential future space-use patterns of the Porcupine Caribou Herd (PCH), which exhibits large, inter-annual shifts in their calving and post-calving distributions across the U.S.–Canadian border. We quantified PCH selection for snow melt and vegetation phenology using machine learning models, determined how selection resulted in annual shifts in space-use, and then projected future distributions based on climate-driven phenology models. Caribou exhibited strong, scale-dependent selection for both snow melt and vegetation growth. During the calving season, caribou selected areas at finer scales where the snow had melted and vegetation was greening, but within broader landscapes that were still brown or snow covered. During the post-calving season, they selected vegetation with intermediate biomass expected to have high forage quality. Annual variation in spring phenology predicted major shifts in PCH space-use. In years with early spring phenology, PCH predominately used habitat in Alaska, while in years with late phenology, they spent more time in Yukon. Future climate conditions were projected to advance spring phenology, shifting PCH calving and post-calving distributions further west into Alaska. Our results demonstrate that caribou selection for habitat in specific phenological stages drive dramatic shifts in annual space-use patterns, and will likely affect future distributions, underscoring the importance of maintaining sufficient suitable habitat to allow for behavioral plasticity.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2021
Title Spring phenology drives range shifts in a migratory Arctic ungulate with key implications for the future
DOI 10.1111/gcb.15682
Authors John P. Severson, Heather E. Johnson, Stephen M. Arthur, William Leacock, Michael J. Suitor
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Global Change Biology
Series Number
Index ID 70223143
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Western Ecological Research Center