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Reproductive plasticity of female white-tailed deer at high density and under harsh climatic conditions

Abstract

Life-history strategies of female ungulates usually depend on density-dependent and independent processes affecting body condition. Using a long-term data set on life-history traits of female white-tailed deer (2002–2014), we investigated the influence of population density and environmental factors on the reproductive effort of females. We also evaluated post-reproductive consequences on body condition using body mass, body fat, and body protein contents in the autumn following conception. We found that under high densities, females had a lower reproductive rate, which corresponds to a conservative reproduction strategy. However, females born at high density were more likely to reproduce and conceive larger litter size than females born at low density, a possible consequence of strong selective pressure in early life. Body condition was affected by reproduction; lactation had a large negative impact on body mass and body reserves, and conception, irrespectively of litter size, had a negative impact on body fat. Our long-term study demonstrates that plasticity in life-history strategies is a major determinant of reproductive potential for females living at high density and under harsh climates.

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Acknowledgements

This study was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Research Chair in integrated management of the resources of Anticosti Island. We particularly thank Produits forestiers Anticosti for their financial support. We thank M. Bonin, M. Le Corre, and L. De Vriendt for comments on earlier versions of the manuscript. A special thank you to S. de Bellefeuille and the staff of the Ministère des Forêts, de la Faune et des Parcs du Québec who provided their help throughout the study. We are also grateful to the outfitters (SEPAQ Anticosti, Safari Anticosti and Pourvoirie du Lac Geneviève), hunting guides, hunters, local residents, and numerous assistants for their help in the field.

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SDC originally formulated the research hypotheses and methodology, SDC financed the research and managed data collection over the years, PA and MAS collected and formatted the data, PA analyzed the data, and PA wrote the manuscript, which was reviewed by MAS and SDC.

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Correspondence to Pascale Ayotte.

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Communicated by Mathew Samuel Crowther.

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Ayotte, P., Simard, M.A. & Côté, S.D. Reproductive plasticity of female white-tailed deer at high density and under harsh climatic conditions. Oecologia 189, 661–673 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-019-04337-9

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Keywords

  • Life-history strategies
  • Conception
  • Body condition
  • Environmental variation
  • Odocoileus virginianus