Changes in fine-scale movement and foraging patterns of common wombats along a snow-depth gradient

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Abstract

Context. Feeding strategies of large herbivores in snow-covered environments can be influenced by snow depth and snow quality. Common wombats, Vombatus ursinus, are large marsupial herbivores that occur in subalpine areas of Australia where they must dig through the snow to reach low vegetation. Deeper snow at higher elevations is considered to limit foraging and constrain their range, although there have been no quantitative studies investigating the influence of snow on their foraging behaviour.Aims. The present study examined how snow influenced the foraging behaviour of common wombats along a snow-depth gradient.Methods. During the 2008 winter season, snow tracks of 17 wombats were located within the subalpine zone, in a study area ranging from 1520 to 1850 m asl, and followed to record attributes of the snow cover and environment in relation to wombat activity.Key results. Wombats selected sites to feed where the snow was shallower, and deeper snow at feeding sites caused changes in foraging behaviour. Foraging occurred along fairly direct routes between burrows; however, as snow depth increased, wombats deviated more from their path to seek out suitable foraging sites. Most foraging occurred in shallow snow in open areas or where the snow had melted around the bases of trees, shrubs or boulders. About half (52%) of the feeding sites necessitated the wombats digging through the snow to reach low vegetation, predominantly the grasses of Poa spp. Digging craters for feeding occurred in snow depths up to 100 cm, although depths less than 35 cm were preferred.Some shrub species, such as dusty daisy bush, Olearia phlogopappa, that protruded from the snow, were also eaten where the snow was deeper. Dietary analysis confirmed that monocots made up the majority of the diet (93.3%), although some individuals consumed up to 26% dicots.Conclusions. The present study demonstrated that wombats can adjust to a snow-covered environment by altering both their foraging patterns and diet as snow depth increases. However, they will be limited where snow depths are consistently greater than 100 cm.Implications. Under future climate-change scenarios of declining snow cover, wombats may be able to forage and inhabit higher altitudes than where they currently occur, and this has implications for the grazing-sensitive alpine ecosystem. Predicting shifts in the range of other herbivores to higher altitudes will require knowledge of their species-specific foraging thresholds in snow, such as presented in this study.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)175-182
Number of pages8
JournalWildlife Research
Volume37
Issue number3
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - May 2010

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