Tracking snowmelt to jump the green wave: phenological drivers of migration in a northern ungulate.

Affiliation

Laforge MP(1), Bonar M(1)(2), Vander Wal E(1)(3).
Author information:
(1)Department of Biology, Memorial University of Newfoundland, 232 Elizabeth Avenue, St. John's, Newfoundland, A1B 3X9, Canada.
(2)Department of Environmental and Life Sciences, Trent University, 1600 West Bank Drive, Suite A211, Peterborough, Ontario, K9J 7B8, Canada.
(3)Cognitive and Behavioural Ecology Program, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, Newfoundland, A1B 3X9, Canada.

Abstract

In northern climates, spring is a time of rapid environmental change: for migrating terrestrial animals, melting snow facilitates foraging and travel, and newly emergent vegetation provides a valuable nutritional resource. These changes result in selection on the timing of important life-history events such as migration and parturition occurring when high-quality resources are most abundant. We examined the timing of female caribou (Rangifer tarandus, n = 94) migration and parturition in five herds across 7 yr in Newfoundland, Canada, as a function of two measures of environmental change-snowmelt and vegetation green-up. We generated resource selection functions to test whether caribou selected for areas associated with snowmelt and green-up during migration and following calving. We found that caribou migrated approximately 1 wk prior to snowmelt, with the flush of emergent vegetation occurring during the weeks following parturition. The results indicate that caribou "jump" the green wave of emergent forage and do so by tracking the receding edge of melting snow, likely reducing movement and foraging costs related to snow cover. Our research further broadens the ecological scope of resource tracking in animals. We demonstrate that resource tracking extends beyond resources directly related to foraging to those related to movement. We also show that snowmelt provides an environmental cue that may provide a buffer against changing environmental conditions.