Seasonal environments experience cyclical or unpredictable pulses in plant growth that provide important resources for animal populations, and may affect the diversity and persistence of animal communities that utilize these resources. The timing of breeding cycles and other biological activities must be compatible with the availability of critical resources for animal species to exploit these resource pulses; failure to match animal needs with available energy can cause population declines. Adult Gunnison’s prairie dogs emerge from hibernation and breed in early spring, when plant growth is linked to cool-season precipitation and is primarily represented by the more nutritious and digestible plants that utilize the C3 photosynthetic pathway. In contrast, summer rainfall stimulates growth of less nutritious plants using the C4 photosynthetic pathway. Prairie dogs should therefore produce young during times of increased productivity from C3 plants, while pre-hibernation accumulation of body fat should rely more heavily upon C4 plants. If seasonal availability of high-quality food sources is important to Gunnison’s prairie dog population growth, projected changes in climate that alter the intensity or timing of these resource pulses could result in loss or decline of prairie dog populations. This project will test the hypothesis that population characteristics of Gunnison's prairie dog, an imperiled grassland herbivore, are associated with climate-based influences on pulses of plant growth.
Gunnison’s prairie dogs will be monitored at 6 colonies, with 3 colonies each occurring with the range of prairie and montane populations. Colonies for study within the prairie populations occur at Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge (n = 3 prairie populations) and at Vermejo Park Ranch (n = 3 montane populations). Live-trapping of prairie dogs will be conducted during 3 periods of the active seasons—following emergence (April), after juveniles have risen to the surface (mid-to-late June), and pre-immergence (beginning in August). Trapping will occur for 3-day periods, following pre-baiting with open traps. At capture, sex and body mass of each individual will be recorded. Blood and subcutaneous body fat samples will be collected nondestructively for analysis of isotopic composition. Prairie dogs will be marked with dye, and released on site immediately following processing. After trapping periods at each site have concluded, population counts will be conducted during 2-3 re-sighting (or recapture) periods for each prairie dog colony. Resighting observation periods will be ~3 hours in length, and consist of 2-6 systematic scans of the entire colony, beginning and ending from marked points outside of the colony boundary. During each observation period, prairie dogs will be counted, recorded as marked or unmarked, and location on the colony noted.
Vegetation cover and composition measurements will be collected (or obtained at Sevilleta, where such data is already being collected) during pre- and post-monsoon periods of the active season. Total cover will be measured by plant species (or to genus if species is indeterminable). Total cover will be measured at 12 grid points per colony using Daubenmire frames (0.5 m x 0.5 m), and at 12 grid locations 200-800 m outside of each colony boundary. Adjacent to each Daubenmire frame, a 20 cm x 30 cm sample of vegetation will be clipped and dried for determination of volumetric moisture content of vegetation.
Primary productivity variables (cover, moisture content) will be tested for correlations to individual and population-level condition indicators in prairie dogs. Carbon isotope ratios (δ13C) from prairie dog blood and fat samples will be analyzed on a continuous flow isotope ratio mass spectrometer. The relative contribution of C3 and C4 plants to the diet of each individual will be determined based upon δ13C ratios for C3 and C4 plants in the study area and a 2-endpiont mixing model, and will be calculated for each individual animal, population and season. Population estimates will be calculated using mark-resight estimates, and compared to maximum above-ground counts. The influence of resource pulses on prairie dog population parameters will be tested by comparing the vegetation cover, moisture content, and ratio of total C3:C4 plant cover to the ratio of C3:C4 plants in prairie dog diets, population estimates, and juvenile:adult ratios as an index to population recruitment.
*Instrument Name: Continuous flow isotope ratio mass spectrometer
*Manufacturer: Thermo-Finnigan IRMS Delta Plus
*Instrument Name: Elemental Analyzer
*Model Number: ECS4010
Other Field Crew Members: Talbot, William; Duran, Ricardo; Gilbert, Eliza; Donovan, Michael; Nichols, Erv; Sevilleta LTER prairie dog field crew led by Koontz, Terri; Sevilleta NWR prairie dog field crew led by Erz, Jon.
Tissue samples are analyzed for stable carbon isotope ratios in stable isotope laboratory operated by Dr. Zachary Sharp and Dr. Nicu-Viorel Atudorei of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, University of New Mexico.