Rapid environmental degradation in a subarctic ecosystem influences resource use of a keystone avian herbivore

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Environmental degradation can change resource use strategies of animals and thereby affect survival and fitness. Arctic herbivores may be especially susceptible to the effects of such environmental change because their rapid growth rates demand high-quality forage, which may be limited as environmental conditions deteriorate. We studied the consequences of a trophic cascade, driven by Lesser Snow Goose (Chen caerulescens caerulescens) overgrazing on the south-west coast of Hudson Bay, Canada, which has caused tidal marsh (TM) degradation and the reduction in high-quality forage plants, on gosling growth and resource use. We compared resource use and body size of goslings that inhabited tidal and freshwater marsh (FM) to determine how current foraging strategies influence growth and to test the hypothesis that during early growth goslings require and so consume high-quality TM plants, but that during later growth they may switch to foraging in lower-quality FM. To investigate gosling resource use throughout growth, we measured once a week for 28days the body size of goslings as well as stable isotope ratios (δ34S, δ15N and δ13C) in multiple tissues of goslings that were collected from both TM and nearby FM. We also measured the stable isotope ratios in forage plants sampled along transects and from gosling foreguts. We used an isotope-mixing model to determine the contribution of FM plants to gosling tissues. Contrary to the proposed hypothesis, goslings inhabiting FM or TM primarily consumed FM plants during early growth. Furthermore, goslings that foraged extensively in FM had similar growth rates and grew to a similar size and body mass, as goslings that foraged in the degraded TM. However, goslings that currently inhabit freshwater or TM were significantly smaller than goslings that inhabited TM in the 1980s prior to habitat degradation. Consequences of smaller overall body size include decreased survival and fecundity for arctic-nesting geese. The ability of phenotypically plastic responses to sustain persistence is limited by reaction norms and the extent of environmental change. Current research is assessing whether those limits have been reached in this system. © 2012 The Authors. Journal of Animal Ecology © 2012 British Ecological Society.

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Journal of Animal Ecology