Managers concerned with shrinking habitats and limited resources for wildlife seek effective tools for limiting population growth in some species. Fertility control is one such tool, yet little is known about its impacts on the behavioral ecology of wild, free-roaming animals. We investigated influences of the immunocontraceptive porcine zona pellucida (PZP) on individual and social behavior in bands of feral horses (Equus caballus) in three discrete populations and used 14 hierarchical mixed effect models to gain insight into the influences of PZP treatment on feral horse behavior. A model of body condition was the strongest predictor of feeding, resting, maintenance, and social behaviors, with treated females allocating their time similarly to control females. Time spent feeding declined 11.4% from low condition to high condition females (F1,154 = 26.427, P < 0.001) and was partially reciprocated by a 6.0% increase in resting (F1,154 = 7.629, P = 0.006), 0.9% increase in maintenance (F1,154 = 7.028, P = 0.009), and 1.8% increase in social behavior (F1,154 = 15.064, P < 0.001). There was no difference detected in body condition of treated versus control females (F1,154 = 0.033, P = 0.856), but females with a dependent foal had lower body condition than those without a foal (F1,154 = 4.512, P = 0.038). Herding behavior was best explained by a model of treatment and the interaction of band fidelity and foal presence (AICc weight = 0.660) which estimated no difference in rate of herding behavior directed toward control versus treated females (F1,102 = 0.196, P = 0.659), but resident females without a dependent foal were herded 50.9% more than resident females with a foal (F3,102 = 8.269, P < 0.001). Treated females received 54.5% more reproductive behaviors from stallions than control mares (F1,105 = 5.155, P = 0.025), with the model containing only treatment being the most-supported (AICc weight = 0.530). Treated and control females received harem-tending behaviors from stallions equally (F1,105 = 0.001, P = 0.969) and agonistic behaviors from stallions equally (F1,105 < 0.001, P = 0.986). Direct effects of PZP treatment on the behavior of feral horses appear to be limited primarily to reproductive behaviors and most other differences detected were attributed to the effects of body condition, band fidelity, or foal presence. PZP is a promising alternative to traditional hormone-based contraceptives and appears to contribute few short-term behavioral modifications in feral horses.
Additional publication details
Influences of immunocontraception on time budgets, social behavior, and body condition in feral horses