Risk-sensitive allocation in seasonal dynamics of fat and protein reserves in a long-lived mammal

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Journal of Animal Ecology







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Body reserves of numerous taxa follow seasonal rhythms that are a function of temporal patterns in food availability and life-history events; however, tests of the theory underlying the allocation of somatic reserves for long-lived organisms are rare, especially for free-ranging mammals. We evaluated the hypothesis that allocation of somatic reserves to survival (i.e., metabolic processes) and reproduction should be sensitive to current nutritional state relative to seasonal thresholds in those reserves. Our goal was to reveal the linkages between nutrition and life-history traits to understand how long-lived, iteroparous organisms balance the allocation of somatic reserves to reproduction, while retaining reserves as insurance for survival in unpredictable environments. Our evaluation was based on seasonal dynamics in fat (measured as ingesta-free body fat; IFBFat) and protein reserves (measured as ingesta-free, fat-free body mass; IFFFBMass) of 136 female mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) over 8 years. Although mean changes in fat and protein reserves were positive over summer and negative over winter, accretion and catabolism of those reserves was not consistent among individuals. Over winter, both lipid and protein stores available in autumn were catabolized in proportion to their availability above a post-winter threshold (5·8% IFBFat, 33 kg IFFFBMass); however, lean body tissue was spared at the expense of lipid reserves. Female deer mostly synthesized lean body tissue over summer and committed post-winter fat reserves to reproduction relative to their availability above an autumn threshold (>8·6% IFBFat), which was lowered by 2·8 percentage points (pp) for each additional young recruited. Mothers reduced their autumn fat threshold to secure current reproductive investment and, thereby, endured a cost of reproduction at the expense of fat accumulation. Allocation of somatic reserves occurred in a risk-sensitive framework; females allocated reserves relative to their availability above seasonal thresholds. In contrast to current notions of summer accretion and winter catabolism of body reserves, some individuals deposited reserves over winter and catabolized reserves over summer, mainly because regulation of individual condition was state-dependent. Consequently, behaviour and life-history strategies may be as much a function of nutritional contributions of the previous season as of the current one.