Research ArticleAPPLIED ECOLOGY

Arctic greening from warming promotes declines in caribou populations

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Science Advances  26 Apr 2017:
Vol. 3, no. 4, e1601365
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1601365

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Abstract

The migratory tundra caribou herds in North America follow decadal population cycles, and browsing from abundant caribou could be expected to counteract the current climate-driven expansion of shrubs in the circumpolar tundra biome. We demonstrate that the sea ice cover in the Arctic Ocean has provided a strong signal for climate-induced changes on the adjacent caribou summer ranges, outperforming other climate indices in explaining the caribou-plant dynamics. We found no evidence of a negative effect of caribou abundance on vegetation biomass. On the contrary, we found a strong bottom-up effect in which a warmer climate related to diminishing sea ice has increased the plant biomass on the summer pastures, along with a paradoxical decline in caribou populations. This result suggests that this climate-induced greening has been accompanied by a deterioration of pasture quality. The shrub expansion in Arctic North America involves plant species with strong antibrowsing defenses. Our results might therefore be an early signal of a climate-driven shift in the caribou-plant interaction from a system with low plant biomass modulated by cyclic caribou populations to a system dominated by nonedible shrubs and diminishing herds of migratory caribou.

Keywords
  • Arctic sea ice
  • Climate change
  • Normalized Difference Vegetation Index
  • population dynamics
  • Rangifer tarandus

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