An Isotopic Approach to Measuring Nitrogen Balance in Caribou Academic Article uri icon


  • Nutritional restrictions in winter may reduce the availability of protein for reproduction and survival in northern ungulates. We refined a technique that uses recently voided excreta on snow to assess protein status in wild caribou (Rangifer tarandus) in late winter. Our study was the first application of this non-invasive, isotopic approach to assess protein status of wild caribou by determining dietary and endogenous contributions of nitrogen (N) to urinary urea. We used isotopic ratios of N ( 15 N) in urine and fecal samples to estimate the proportion of urea N derived from body N (p-UN) in pregnant, adult females of the Chisana Herd, a small population that ranged across the Alaska-Yukon border. We took advantage of a predator-exclosure project to examine N status of penned caribou in April 2006. Lichens were the primary forage (>40%) consumed by caribou in the pen and 15 N of fiber tracked the major forages in their diets. The 15 N of urinary urea for females in the pen was depleted relative (-1.3 1.0 parts per thousand [], x SD) to the 15 N of body N (2.7 0.7). A similar proportion of animals in the exclosure lost core body mass (excluding estimates of fetal and uterine tissues; 55%) and body protein (estimated by isotope ratios; 54%). This non-invasive technique could be applied at various spatial and temporal scales to assess trends in protein status of free-ranging populations of northern ungulates. Intra- and inter-annual estimates of protein status could help managers monitor effects of foraging conditions on nutritional constraints in ungulates, increase the efficiency and efficacy of management actions, and help prepare stakeholders for potential changes in population trends. 2010 The Wildlife Society.

published proceedings


author list (cited authors)

  • Gustine, D. D., Barboza, P. S., Adams, L. G., Farnell, R. G., & Parker, K. L.

citation count

  • 17

complete list of authors

  • Gustine, David D||Barboza, Perry S||Adams, Layne G||Farnell, Richard G||Parker, Katherine L

publication date

  • January 2011