Environmental and physiological influences to isotopic ratios of N and protein status in a Montane ungulate in winter.
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Winter severity can influence large herbivore populations through a reduction in maternal proteins available for reproduction. Nitrogen (N) isotopes in blood fractions can be used to track the use of body proteins in northern and montane ungulates. We studied 113 adult female caribou for 13 years throughout a series of severe winters that reduced population size and offspring mass. After these severe winters, offspring mass increased but the size of the population remained low. We devised a conceptual model for routing of isotopic N in blood in the context of the severe environmental conditions experienced by this population. We measured 15N in three blood fractions and predicted the relative mobilization of dietary and body proteins. The 15N of the body protein pool varied by 4 and 46% of the variance was associated with year. Annual variation in 15N of body protein likely reflected the fall/early winter diet and winter locations, yet 15% of the isotopic variation in amino acid N was due to body proteins. Consistent isotopic differences among blood N pools indicated that animals tolerated fluxes in diet and body stores. Conservation of body protein in caribou is the result of active exchange among diet and body N pools. Adult females were robust to historically severe winter conditions and prioritized body condition and survival over early investment in offspring. For a vagile ungulate residing at low densities in a predator-rich environment, protein restrictions in winter may not be the primary limiting factor for reproduction.