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Influence of environmental variation on habitat selection, life history strategies and population dynamics of sympatric ptarmigan in the southern Yukon Territory Wilson, Scott Darren


Climatic variation is an important driver of avian life history and population dynamics. Climate change models predict increased variability for many regions and to predict the effects on species, we need to examine how their life history characteristics influence their response to climate. I studied how environmental conditions influenced the ecology of white-tailed (Lagopus leucura) and rock ptarmigan (L. mutus) in tundra habitats of the southern Yukon Territory. Although sympatric in the study area, breeding territories were generally segregated, with white-tailed ptarmigan selecting steep, rocky slopes at higher elevations and rock ptarmigan preferring lower elevation sedge meadows. For both species, cold spring temperatures delayed the onset of breeding, resulting in smaller clutch sizes and fewer hatched young per female. However, delayed breeding led to a stronger reduction in these rates for rock ptarmigan, suggesting a lower resilience to extend reproductive effort in colder years. White-tailed ptarmigan were also more likely to re-nest following failure and had higher daily nest survival, both of which contributed to greater annual productivity compared to rock ptarmigan. Annual adult survival showed the opposite pattern to productivity as rock ptarmigan survival was 24 percent higher than white-tailed ptarmigan. This finding suggested a reproduction-survival trade-off exists for the two species, which may be driven by differing susceptibility to environmental factors in the region. Life history theory predicts that if the likelihood of future breeding opportunities is low, individuals should increase current reproductive effort, which may explain why white-tailed ptarmigan have longer breeding seasons and higher reproductive effort under unfavourable climatic conditions. Population models showed that growth rates (λ)were approximately stable for rock ptarmigan (λ=1.01), but declining for white-tailed ptarmigan (λ=0.96). Simulations showed that warmer spring temperatures over the next few decades would elevate λ by ~0.05 for both species, but the extent of increase in λ may be reduced with more variable spring conditions. Population growth will also depend on how changing winter conditions influence survival for each species. Model simulations suggest that if juvenile and adult survival are positively correlated, rock ptarmigan would be more resilient to severe years that simultaneously depress reproduction and survival.

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