Continental Synchrony and Local Responses: Climatic Effects on Spatiotemporal Patterns of Calving in a Social Ungulate

Ophélie Couriot
Matthew Cameron
Kyle Joly
Jan Adamczewski
Mitch Campbell
Tracy Davison
Anne Gunn
Allicia Kelly
Mathieu Leblond
Judy Williams
William Fagan
Anna Brose
Eliezer Gurarie
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Warming temperatures and advancing spring are affecting annual snow and ice cycles, as well as plant phenology, across the Arctic and boreal regions. These changes may be linked to observed population declines in wildlife, including barren-ground caribou (Rangifer tarandus), a key species of Arctic environments. We quantified how barren-ground caribou, characteristically both gregarious and migratory, synchronize births in time and aggregate births in space and investigated how these tactics are influenced by variable weather conditions. We analyzed movement patterns to infer calving dates for 747 collared female caribou from seven herds across northern North America, totaling 1255 calving events over a 15-year period. By relating these events to local weather conditions during the 1-year period preceding calving, we examined how weather influenced calving timing and the ability of caribou to reach their central calving area. We documented continental-scale synchrony in calving, but synchrony was greatest within an individual herd for a given year. Weather conditions before and during gestation had contrasting effects on the timing and location of calving. Notably, a combination of unfavorable weather conditions during winter and spring, including the pre-calving migration, resulted in a late arrival on the calving area or a failure to reach the greater calving area in time for calving. Though local weather conditions influenced calving timing differently among herds, warm temperatures and low wind speed, which are associated with soft, deep snow, during the spring and pre-calving migration, generally affected the ability of female caribou to reach central calving areas in time to give birth. Delayed calving may have potential indirect consequences, including reduced calf survival. Overall, we detected considerable variability across years and across herds, but no significant trend for earlier calving by caribou, even as broad indicators of spring and snow phenology trend earlier. Our results emphasize the importance of monitoring the timing and location of calving, and to examine how weather during summer and winter are affecting calving and subsequent reproductive success.