Functional response in habitat selection and the tradeoffs between foraging niche components in a large herbivore

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How herbivore behaviour is influenced by changes in resource levels is central for understanding trophic interactions. We examined whether foraging tradeoffs change with food levels by comparing habitat selection and space use within and between two neighbouring, predator-free Svalbard reindeer populations. The populations faced different food levels due to contrasting grazing history. Summer resource selection in radiocollared females was assessed by a multi-dimensional niche approach based on habitat variables obtained from a satellite image (e.g. the normalised difference vegetation index, NDVI) and a digital terrain model. The population at the overgrazed Brøggerhalvøya faced overall lower plant cover, biomass and primary productivity (i.e. lower NDVI) than the population at Sarsøyra. At Brøggerhalvøya, most reindeer selected for productive habitat when choosing home range and patches within the home range. In contrast, habitat selection at Sarsøyra was more affected by abiotic conditions such as moisture, which may influence plant quality. Here, reindeer used patches with even less biomass than the average reindeer at the poorer Brøggerhalvøya. Such a difference in habitat preference with different habitat availability (a functional response in habitat selection) probably reflected increased selection for high-quality forage at the expense of high forage quantity at Sarsøyra. Accordingly, a negative relationship between habitat productivity and home range size was only present across individuals within Brøggerhalvøya, where forage quantity was the important foraging niche component. Individuals having poor (and large) home ranges apparently could not compensate for this by higher patch selectivity compared to individuals with richer home ranges. The results indicate changes in foraging tradeoffs at contrasting resource levels and that strong interactions occur between habitat selection, space use and the foraging niche structure in the absence of predation.

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