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digestibility, leaf N, Rangifer tarandus, secondary compounds, snow depth


Caribou (Rangifer tarandus) rely on the short Arctic growing season to restore body condition, support the demands of lactation, and prepare for the long arctic winter, making them susceptible to even small changes in forage availability or quality. Body condition in the summer and autumn is linked to winter survival rates and fecundity in cows, critical factors in the productivity of caribou populations. Climate change predictions of warmer and wetter northern winters suggest increased snowfall over Alaska’s North Slope, which has recently been verified between 1995 and 2017. However, a comprehensive analysis of how deeper snow will affect caribou forage quality is absent across Alaska. In this study, we quantify how snow depth alters the quality and seasonality of caribou forage using a long-term (24 yr) International Tundra Experiment snow depth manipulation to evaluate how winter climate change scenarios may affect tussock tundra systems in northern Alaska. Deeper snow in prior winters leads to increases in growing season leaf N and digestible protein (DP) in deciduous shrubs (and Betula spp.) and graminoids (Carex spp. and Eriophorum spp.), but not evergreen dwarf shrubs (Rhododendron spp. and Vaccinium spp.). Dry matter digestibility varied among species with small differences (<5%) associated with snow depth. Most striking was the discovery that deeper snow in the prior winter increased the duration of DP levels above the minimum threshold for protein gain in caribou by as much as 25 d in Salix pulchra and 6–9 d in Betula nana and Carex bigelowii in late summer and early autumn. Consequently, deeper winter snow may provide an extended window of opportunity for foraging and the accumulation of lean body mass and fat reserves which promote winter survival and successful calving the following spring and potentially improve the productivity of caribou in northern Alaska.

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Ecological Society of America


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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.