Arid climates have unpredictable precipitation patterns, and wildlife managers often provide supplemental water to help desert ungulates endure the hottest, driest periods. When surface water is unavailable, the only source of water for ungulates comes from the forage they consume, and they must make resourceful foraging decisions to meet their requirements. We compared two desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) populations in Arizona, USA: a treatment population with supplemental water removed during treatment, and a control population. We examined whether sheep altered their seasonal diets without supplemental water. We calculated water and nutrient intake and metabolic water production from dry matter intake and forage moisture and nitrogen content, to determine whether sheep could meet their seasonal daily water and nutrient requirements solely from forage. Diets of sheep were higher in protein (all seasons) and moisture (autumn and winter) during treatment compared to pretreatment. During treatment, sheep diet composition was similar between the treatment and control populations, which suggests, under the climatic conditions of this study, water removal did not influence sheep diets. We estimated that under drought conditions, without any surface water available (although small ephemeral potholes would contain water after rains), female and male sheep would be unable to meet their daily water requirements in all seasons, except winter, when reproductive females had a nitrogen deficit. We determined that sheep could achieve water and nutrient balances in all seasons by shifting their total diet proportions by 8–55% from lower to higher moisture and nitrogen forage species. We elucidate how seasonal forage quality and foraging decisions by desert ungulates allow them to cope with their xeric and uncertain environment, and suggest that, with the forage conditions observed in our study area during this study period, providing supplemental water during water-stressed periods may not be necessary for desert bighorn sheep.
Additional publication details
|Publication Subtype||Journal Article|
|Title||Potential foraging decisions by a desert ungulate to balance water and nutrient intake in a water-stressed environment|
|Series title||PLoS ONE|
|Contributing office(s)||Coop Res Unit Seattle|
|Online Only (Y/N)||N|
|Additional Online Files (Y/N)||N|