Population Ecology of Caribou Populations without Predators: Southampton and Coats Island Herds
Keywords:Rangifer, caribou, Arctic caribou population, Canada, population dynamics, food, snow, density
AbstractThis paper is a review of the ecology of two caribou populations inhabiting predator-free northern islands, Coats and Southampton Island. Findings are analyzed in light of the hypothesis that in absence of prédation or high human harvest, food competition results in delayed puberty, reduced calf production, increased winter starvation of caribou and regulates populations at high densities (>2 km-2). Caribou were hunted to extinction on Southampton Island (Northwest Territories, Canada) by mid-century. In 1967, 48 caribou were captured on neighbouring Coats Island and released on Southampton Island. Southampton Island is characterized by a high per capita winter food availability in summer and in winter. The population on Southampton Island has been increasing at a rapid rate of growth since re-introduction (Lamba=1.27). Fast population growth was possible because females invested early in reproduction and over winter survival rate was high. The population on Coats Island is also characterized by high per capita food availability in summer but low food availability in winter. The population size has undergone some marked fluctuations, abrupt declines followed by relatively rapid recovery and, contrary to predictions, densities were always less than 1 km-2. Low population densities on Coats Island result primarily from low food availability. This review suggests that in the absence of prédation or high human harvest competition for food regulates caribou population abundance. However, caribou numbers can fluctuate markedly among years because inter-annual variation of weather conditions affects forage accessibility in winter. This review also emphasizes the importance of distinguishing between factors that determine absolute population density and variation in density among years (in our case probably plant production and winter weather conditions which influence forage accessibility) from the regulatory factors, processes that stop population increase (competition for winter food leading primarily to density dependent changes in mortality from starvation) when examining population dynamics.
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