Maternal tactics for mitigating neonate predation risk during the postpartum period in Thomson’s gazelle

in Behaviour
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The time immediately following birth is a period of high predation risk for ungulate neonates. Ungulate mothers exhibit perinatal behaviors that appear to mitigate offspring risk during this time. However, few studies of infant mortality include the postpartum period. Therefore, the function and effectiveness of these maternal behaviors are untested. We observed perinatal behavior in 11 Thomson’s gazelle (Eudorcas thomsoni) mother–infant pairs in a free-ranging population under predation pressure. Five of the six fawns that were detected by predators during the perinatal period were killed. Fawn survival therefore depended on avoiding detection by predators. Considered individually, neither prepartum isolation from conspecifics nor birth site selection affected the risk of being detected by a predator. However, analyses revealed two distinct perinatal tactics: mothers either isolated and gave birth in tall grass or remained in their social groups and gave birth in short grass. Both of these tactics resulted in lower risk of predator detection compared to behavior that was inconsistent with either tactic. The tactics represent a maternal trade-off between minimizing the duration of the highly vulnerable postpartum period and minimizing conspicuousness to predators.

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Figures

  • The effect of non-predatory disturbances on the time delay from birth to the onset of hiding (open circles, grey line) and the fawn’s first walking bout (closed circles, black line). Fawns that spend more time separated from their mothers due to disturbances during the postpartum period take longer to walk and hide.

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  • Probability of avoiding a predator encounter during postpartum periods of various durations. We generated the lognormal curves by fitting them to Kaplan–Meier survival curves based on our data. The dashed curve includes only jackal encounters and the solid curve includes all predators. Vertical lines represent hiding times (dotted line) for our observations and the mean hiding time (solid line). The logarithmic scale on the y-axis allows for clearer visualization of encounter probability, with straight lines representing constant risk of encounter (1947).

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  • Mean visibility of fawns while standing and lying down in video-recorded observations. Except for observation 4, fawns in short grass are significantly more visible while lying down than fawns in tall grass. All fawns born in short grass are significantly more visible while standing than the fawn in observation 7, which was born in tall grass. Our analysis yielded no data on the visibility while standing of the fawn in observation 9. Error bars indicate standard error.

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  • Two main behavioral tactics used by Thomson’s gazelle mothers. Solid and dashed arrows represent positive and negative correlations, respectively. Giving birth in isolation and in tall grass serves to minimize non-predatory disturbances and thereby shorten the postpartum period. However, mothers using this tactic are conspicuous to predators. Giving birth within social groups and in short grass serves to minimize maternal conspicuousness to predators, but these mother–fawn pairs are at higher risk of disturbance from conspecifics.

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