• Monitoring energy and nitrogen availability for Arctic caribou (Rangifer tarandus)

      VanSomeren, Lindsay L.; Barboza, Perry S.; Bret-Harte, M. Sydonia; Gustine, David D. (2014-12)
      Arctic caribou and reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) are an economically and ecologically important species. Rangifer populations are often affected by nutritional factors. Our ability to monitor nutrient supply to arctic ungulates is presently limited by a lack of techniques to consistently and easily measure availability of specific nutrients and which may disproportionately affect different segments of Rangifer populations. I refined and validated a method to measure availability of specific nutrients including nitrogen (N) and energy to caribou using purified fibrolytic enzymes and acid/pepsin to simulate digestion. I then used this method to measure how availability of nitrogen and energy was altered by anti-nutrients such as indigestible fiber and toxins. Digestible N contents in forages declined to almost zero by the end of the growing season, whereas digestible energy concentrations were still sufficient to meet basic maintenance requirements for caribou by the end of the growing season in shrub and forb forages. Shrubs contained the highest amounts of total N and energy, however this was reduced by fiber and toxins so that shrubs contained the lowest digestible N contents, especially for Betula nana. Graminoids were extremely low in digestible energy content, which may necessitate a high degree of selection among plant parts by herbivores. Dietary choice over long- and short-term periods may be assessed using non-invasive stable isotope techniques, nevertheless, the understanding of how isotopic signatures vary over spatial, temporal, and species-specific scales and how isotopic signatures are changed by digestive processes is limited. Monocot (graminoid) and dicot (browse and forb) forages both differed in values of 13C and 15N, however regional and seasonal shifts in 13C were larger than the differences among forage groups themselves. Forage isotopic signatures also changed after simulated digestive processes, yet this was only significant for species with very low (< 52.6 % N) or very high (> 36.6 % C) digestibilities. These studies suggest that nitrogen may be a limiting nutrient for caribou populations. Persistence of arctic caribou populations in a changing climate may depend, in part, upon continued access to calving grounds, the change in abundance of individual shrub species, and/or the ability of caribou to behaviorally and physiologically cope with increasing amounts of toxins in shrubs.