Trophic mismatch and its effects on the growth of young in an Arctic herbivore

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Abstract

In highly seasonal environments, timing of breeding of organisms is typically set to coincide with the period of highest resource availability. However, breeding phenology may not change at a rate sufficient to keep up with rapid changes in the environment in the wake of climate change. The lack of synchrony between the phenology of consumers and that of their resources can lead to a phenomenon called trophic mismatch, which may have important consequences on the reproductive success of herbivores. We analyzed long-term data (1991–2010) on climate, plant phenology and the reproduction of a long-distance Arctic migrant, the greater snow goose (Chen caerulescens atlantica), in order to examine the effects of mismatched reproduction on the growth of young. We found that geese are only partially able to adjust their breeding phenology to compensate for annual changes in the timing of high-quality food plants, leading to mismatches of up to 20 days between the two. The peak of nitrogen concentration in plants, an index of their nutritive quality for goslings, occurred earlier in warm springs with an early snow melt. Likewise, mismatch between hatch dates of young and date of peak nitrogen was more important in years with early snow melt. Gosling body mass and structural size at fledging was reduced when trophic mismatch was high, particularly when the difference between date of peak nitrogen concentration and hatching was >9 days. Our results support the hypothesis that trophic mismatch can negatively affect the fitness of Arctic herbivores and that this is likely to be exacerbated by rising global temperatures.

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