Multiple causes of sexual segregation in European red deer: enlightenments from varying breeding phenology at high and low latitude

Abstract

Sexual segregation outside the mating season occurs in most species of sexually dimorphic ungulates and has been extensively described in the literature, but the mechanisms causing segregation are still debated. The detailed pattern of sexual segregation throughout the year has rarely been presented for mammals, and no study, to our knowledge, has used latitudinal–related variation in breeding phenology to shed light on the underlying mechanisms. Recent methodological developments have made it possible to quantify separate components of segregation (social, habitat) and activity synchrony in animal groups, but these major improvements have so far been little used. We observed European red deer year round at two widely different latitudes (France and Norway) and tested three different mechanistic hypotheses of segregation related to: (i) predation risk; (ii) body–size–related forage selection; and (iii) activity budget. Habitat segregation peaked during calving in both populations and dropped rapidly after calving. Females with calves were more segregated from males than were females without calves, pointing to a key role of anti–predator behaviour even though large predators are absent in France and extremely rare in Norway. However, at both sites individuals also grouped with their own sex within habitat types (i.e. social segregation), and individuals in mixed–sex groups were less synchronized in activity type than individuals in either unisex male or unisex female groups, suggesting that differences in activity budgets are involved. Social segregation peaked during calving and was lowest during the rut (indicating aggregation) in both populations; these activities occurred one month later in the Northern populations, corresponding well with known differences in breeding phenology. We conclude that latitude–dependent breeding phenology shapes the seasonal pattern of sexual segregation and that sexual segregation in ungulates has multiple causes.

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