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New study links spring green-up with migratory patterns

New study links spring green-up with migratory patterns

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New research draws a direct link between the speed of spring green-up and migratory patterns in deer. The “first-of-its-kind” study, which was published in the journal of Current Biology this week, discovered that “the dynamics of springtime plant growth, specifically whether green-up progresses like a wave or not, explains where migration occurs in many ecosystems,” according to the press release.

In this new study, lead author Ellen Aikens, a recent doctoral student of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at the University of Wyoming, worked with a team of 36 biologists across North America and Europe to analyze vegetation data and GPS-tracking data from 1,696 animals across 61 populations of four ungulate species: roe deer and red deer in Europe and mule deer and elk in North America. 

Based upon careful analysis, researchers found that deer tend to stick around and become resident during a long, slow spring green-up; whereas, when it’s shorter or “progresses up in elevation,” then migratory behavior begins. One of the main takeaways from the study is that, at the species level, both migrants and residents seemed to gain “equal foraging benefits regardless of which movement strategy they employed,” signifying that “deer populations are fine-tuned to the dynamic way that forage resources move across the landscapes they inhabit,” according to the press release.

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“This research has global implications for the field of animal ecology and should help drive future conservation work. It allows us to understand more fully the types of landscapes where migration is required by ungulates and where conservation of corridors is thus paramount,” says Matthew Kauffman, Study Senior Author and Director of the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at the University of Wyoming.

The future implications of this research could help with the management and conservation strategies of these particular species since wildlife biologists could consider plant growth patterns and behavioral adaptations based upon these findings. 

“This new research shows that ungulate movement is influenced by altered patterns of forage availability,” says Aikens. “Migrations can be lost when changes in the underlying habitat eliminate the need to migrate over long distances.”

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