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Movement tactics of a mobile predator in a meta-ecosystem with fluctuating resources: the arctic fox in the High Arctic

Research paper by Sandra Lai, Joël Bêty, Dominique Berteaux

Indexed on: 08 Dec '16Published on: 07 Dec '16Published in: Oikos



Abstract

Animal movement is a fundamental process shaping ecosystems at multiple levels, from the fate of individuals to global patterns of biodiversity. The spatio-temporal dynamic of food resources is a major driver of animal movement and generates patterns ranging from range residency to migration and nomadism. Arctic tundra predators face a strongly fluctuating environment marked by cyclic microtine populations, high seasonality, and the potential availability of sea ice, which gives access to marine resources in winter. This type of relatively poor and highly variable environment can promote long-distance movements and resource tracking in mobile species. Here, we investigated the winter movements of the arctic fox, a major tundra predator often described as a seasonal migrant or nomad. We used six years of Argos satellite telemetry data collected on 66 adults from Bylot Island (Nunavut, Canada) tracked during the sea ice period. We hypothesized that long-distance movements would be influenced by spatio-temporal changes in resource availability and individual characteristics. Despite strong annual and seasonal changes in resource abundance and distribution, we found that a majority of individuals remained resident, especially those located in an area characterized by highly predictable pulse resources (goose nesting colony) and abundant cached food items (eggs). Foxes compensated terrestrial food shortage by commuting to the sea ice rather than using long-distance tracking or moving completely onto the sea ice for winter. Individual characteristics also influenced movement patterns: age positively influenced the propensity to engage in nomadism, suggesting older foxes may be driven out of their territories. Our results show how these mammalian predators can adjust their movement patterns to favor range residency despite strong spatio-temporal fluctuations in food resources. Understanding the movement responses of predators to prey dynamics helps identifying the scales at which they work, which is a critical aspect of the functioning and connectivity among meta-ecosystems.