Behavior of feral horses in response to culling and GnRH immunocontraception

Applied Animal Behaviour Science
By: , and 

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Abstract

Wildlife management actions can alter fundamental behaviors of individuals and groups,which may directly impact their life history parameters in unforeseen ways. This is especially true for highly social animals because changes in one individual’s behavior can cascade throughout its social network. When resources to support populations of social animals are limited and populations become locally overabundant, managers are faced with the daunting challenge of decreasing population size without disrupting core behavioral processes. Increasingly, managers are turning to fertility control technologies to supplement culling in efforts to suppress population growth, but little is quantitatively known about how either of these management tools affects behavior. Gonadotropin releasing hormone (GnRH) is a small neuropeptide that performs an obligatory role in mammalian reproduction and has been formulated into the immunocontraceptive GonaCon-BTM. We investigated the influences of this vaccine on behavior of feral horses (Equus caballus) at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota, USA, for a year preceding and a year following nonlethal culling and GnRH-vaccine treatment. We observed horses during the breeding season and found only minimal differences in time budget behaviors of free-ranging female feral horses treated with GnRH and those treated with saline. The differences observed were consistent with the metabolic demands of pregnancy and lactation. We observed similar social behaviors between treatment groups, reflecting limited reproductive behavior among control females due to high rates of pregnancy and suppressed reproductive behavior among treated females due to GnRH-inhibited ovarian activity. In the treatment year, band stallion age was the only supported factor influencing herding behavior (P < 0.001), harem-tending behavior (P < 0.001), and agonistic behavior (P = 0.02). There was no difference between the mean body condition of control females (4.9 (95% CI = 4.7–5.1)) and treated females(4.8 (95% CI = 4.7–4.9)). Band fidelity among all females increased 25.7% in the year fol-lowing vaccination and culling, despite the social perturbation associated with removal of conspecifics. Herding behavior by stallions decreased 50.7% following treatment and culling (P < 0.001), while harem-tending behavior increased 195.0% (P < 0.001). The amount of available forage influenced harem-tending, reproductive, and agonistic behavior in the year following culling and treatment (P < 0.04). These changes reflected the expected nexus between a species with polygynous social structure and strong group fidelity and the large instantaneous change in population density and demography coincident with culling.Behavioral responses to such perturbation may be synergistic in reducing grazing pressure by decreasing energetically expensive competitive behaviors, but further investigation is needed to explicitly test this hypothesis.

Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Behavior of feral horses in response to culling and GnRH immunocontraception
Series title Applied Animal Behaviour Science
DOI 10.1016/j.applanim.2014.05.002
Volume 157
Year Published 2014
Language English
Publisher International Society for Applied Ethology
Publisher location New York, NY
Contributing office(s) Fort Collins Science Center
Description 12 p.
First page 81
Last page 92
Online Only (Y/N) N
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N