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Population decline in semi-migratory caribou (Rangifer tarandus): intrinsic or extrinsic drivers?

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Many populations of caribou (Rangifer tarandus (L., 1758)) across North America, including Newfoundland, are in a state of decline. This phenomenon may reflect continental-scale changes in either the extrinsic or the intrinsic factors affecting caribou abundance. We hypothesized that caribou decline reflected marked resource limitation and predicted that fluctuations should correspond to time-delayed density dependence associated with a decline in range quality and decadal trends in winter severity. By conducting time-series analysis using 12 populations and evaluating correlations between caribou abundance and trends in (i) vegetation available at calving (normalized difference vegetation index, NDVI), (ii) winter weather severity (index of North Atlantic Oscillation, NAO), and (iii) caribou morphometrics, we observed strong evidence of density dependence in population dynamics (i.e., a negative relationship between caribou population size and caribou morphometrics). Caribou population trajectories were time-delayed relative to winter severity, but not relative to calving-ground greenness. These island-wide correlations could not be traced to dispersal between herds, which appears rare at least for adult females. Our results suggest that trends in winter severity may synchronize broad-scale changes in caribou abundance that are driven by time-delayed density dependence, although it remains possible that calving-ground deterioration also may contribute to population limitation in Newfoundland. Our findings provide the basis for additional research into density dependence and caribou population decline.

Keywords: Rangifer tarandus; caribou; climate influence; density dependence; densité dépendence; influence du climat; predation; prédation; synchronie; synchrony

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: 1: Environmental and Life Sciences Graduate Program, Trent University; 1600 West Bank Drive, Peterborough, ON K9J 7B8, Canada. 2: Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Environment and Conservation, PO Box 8700, St. John’s, NL A1B 4J6, Canada.

Publication date: 2013-01-01

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  • Published since 1929, this monthly journal reports on primary research contributed by respected international scientists in the broad field of zoology, including behaviour, biochemistry and physiology, developmental biology, ecology, genetics, morphology and ultrastructure, parasitology and pathology, and systematics and evolution. It also invites experts to submit review articles on topics of current interest.
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