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Interacting effects of age, density, and weather on survival and current reproduction for a large mammal

18 Sep 2014

Abstract

Individual-based study of natural populations allows for accurate and precise estimation of fitness components and the extent to which they might vary with ecological conditions. By tracking the fates of all 701 horses known to have lived on Sable Island, Canada, from 2009 to 2013 (where there is no predation, human interference, or interspecific competition for food), we present a detailed analysis of structured population dynamics with focus on interacting effects of intraspecific competition and weather on reproduction and survival. Annual survival of adult females (0.866 ± 0.107 [ ± SE]) was lower than that of 3-year-olds (0.955 ± 0.051), although annual fecundity (producing a foal in a year that was observed during our census) was higher in adults (0.616 ± 0.023) compared to 3-year-olds (0.402 ± 0.054). Milder winters and lower densities during gestation increased fecundity. Density negatively impacted survival for all age and sex categories; however, highest adult female survival was observed during high-density years coupled with a harsh winter, the result expected if pregnancy loss during winter or loss of foals in spring improved survival. Three-year-old females, which reproduced at lower rates, experienced higher survival than adults. Our results contrast with a previous study of feral horses that suggested recently feral ungulates might be artificially selected to reproduce even when costs to survival are high. In part, this may be because of the comparably long history of feralization (250 years; at least 25 generations) for Sable Island horses.

By tracking the fates of all 701 horses known to have lived on Sable Island, Canada, from 2009 to 2013 (where there is no predation, human interference, or interspecific competition for food), we present a detailed analysis of structured population dynamics with focus on interacting effects of intraspecific competition and weather on reproduction and survival. Our results contrast with a previous study of feral horses that suggested recently feral ungulates might be artificially selected to reproduce even when costs to survival are high. In part, this may be because of the comparably long history of feralization for Sable Island horses.

Date: 
18 September 2014

Click here to view the full article which appeared in Ecology and Evolution