Den site selection, pack composition, and reproductive success in endangered African wild dogs

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Abstract

Habitat quality is often assumed to be directly related to increased consumer density, but such assumptions cannot be made without supporting demographic data that indicate improved fitness. Habitat selection might be especially important for denning species, where vulnerable offspring are confined to a single location for extended periods, but the effect of den choice on the reproductive success of denning species is poorly understood. By combining airborne high-resolution Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) measurements with data on pack composition, we investigated den site selection by endangered African wild dogs in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, South Africa, examining whether habitat selection based on ecological factors resulted in increased litter sizes and thus reproductive success compared with social factors known to be important. Although there was selection for den sites in areas of increased terrain ruggedness and vegetation density, only vegetation density was associated with larger litter sizes and translated into increased reproductive success. Moreover, pack size was only influential when a minimum vegetation density around den sites was achieved, indicating that although social variables have a powerful effect on reproductive success, they are mediated by ecological factors defining habitat quality. Our results demonstrate the importance of distinguishing between density- and fitness-based indicators of habitat quality, and how this can affect management actions, particularly for endangered species conservation.

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