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Environment and physiology shape Arctic ungulate population dynamics

New publication by Jean‐Pierre Desforges, Gonçalo M. Marques, Larissa T. Beumer, Marianna Chimienti, Lars H. Hansen, Stine Højlund Pedersen, Niels M. Schmidt, Floris M. van Beest


 Species conservation in a rapidly changing world requires an improved understanding of how individuals and populations respond to changes in their environment across temporal scales. Increased warming in the Arctic puts this region at particular risk for rapid environmental change, with potentially devastating impacts on resident populations. Here, we make use of a parameterized full life cycle, individual‐based energy budget model for wild muskoxen, coupling year‐round environmental data with detailed ontogenic metabolic physiology. We show how winter food accessibility, summer food availability, and density dependence drive seasonal dynamics of energy storage and thus life history and population dynamics. Winter forage accessibility defined by snow depth, more than summer forage availability, was the primary determinant of muskox population dynamics through impacts on calf recruitment and longer term carryover effects of maternal investment. Simulations of various seasonal snow depth and plant biomass and quality profiles revealed that timing of and improved/limited winter forage accessibility had marked influence on calf recruitment (±10–80%). Impacts on recruitment were the cumulative result of condition‐driven reproductive performance at multiple time points across the reproductive period (ovulation to calf weaning) as a trade‐off between survival and reproduction. Seasonal and generational condition effects of snow‐rich winters interacted with age structure and density to cause pronounced long‐term consequences on population growth and structure, with predicted population recovery times from even moderate disturbances of 10 years or more. Our results show how alteration in winter forage accessibility, mediated by snow depth, impacts the dynamics of northern herbivore populations. Further, we present here a mechanistic and state‐based model framework to assess future scenarios of environmental change, such as increased or decreased snowfall or plant biomass and quality to impact winter and summer forage availability across the Arctic.