Changes in behavior are unable to disrupt a trophic cascade involving a specialist herbivore and its food plant

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Changes in ecological conditions can induce changes in behavior and demography of wild organisms, which in turn may influence population dynamics. Pacific black brant (Branta bernicla nigricans) nesting in colonies on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta (YKD) in western Alaska have declined substantially (~50%) since the turn of the century. Pacific black brant are herbivores that rely heavily on Carex subspathacea (Hoppner’s sedge) during growth and development. The availability of C. subspathacea affects gosling growth rates, which subsequently affect pre- and post-fledging survival, as well as size and breeding probability as an adult. We predicted that long-term declines in C. subspathacea have affected gosling growth rates, despite the potential of behavior to buffer changes in food availability during brood rearing. We used Bayesian hierarchical mixed-effects models to examine long-term (1987 – 2015) shifts in brant behavior during brood-rearing, forage availability, and gosling growth rates at the Tutakoke River colony. We showed that locomotion behaviors have increased (β = 0.05, 95% CRI 0.032 – 0.068) while resting behaviors have decreased (β = -0.024, 95% CRI -0.041 – -0.007), potentially in response to long-term shifts in forage availability and brood density. Concurrently, gosling growth rates have decreased substantially (β = -0.096, 95% CRI -0.198 – -0.014) despite shifts in behavior, mirroring long-term declines in the abundance of C. subspathacea (β = -0.194, 95% CRI -0.350 – -0.037). These results have important implications for individual fitness and population viability, where shifts in gosling behavior putatively fail to mitigate long-term declines in forage availability.

Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Changes in behavior are unable to disrupt a trophic cascade involving a specialist herbivore and its food plant
DOI 10.1002/ece3.5118
Volume 9
Issue 9
Year Published 2019
Language English
Publisher Wiley
Contributing office(s) Alaska Science Center Biology WTEB
Description 11 p.
First page 5281
Last page 5291
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