Recent work suggests that availability and quality of forage in late summer and early autumn, a time when female ungulates face multiple energetic demands, is critical to reproduction in wild ungulates. Therefore, we examined direct links between nutritional quality of diets, body condition, and reproduction of lactating mule deer. Using captive mule deer, we tested the hypothesis that females consuming diets with lower digestible energy (DE; kJ/g) would have lower DE intake rates (DEI; MJ/day), have less body fat and muscle, have later estrus cycles, and have lower pregnancy and twinning rates. Deer fed lower DE diets had lower DEI during summer and autumn. In turn, deer with lower DEI, regardless of diet DE, had lower body mass, body fat, and muscle thickness. When nutritional quality of diets began to decline earlier in the summer, relationships between food quality, DEI, and body condition were stronger. Although DEI did not influence estrus date for deer that became pregnant before 21 December, deer with lower DEI had a lower probability of becoming pregnant and had a lower probability of producing twins. Measures of body condition in October (i.e., body mass, body fat, and muscle depth) predicted pregnancy and twinning rates in mule deer. Serum concentration of hormones leptin and Insulin Growth Factor 1 were not good predictors of body condition or reproduction. These findings suggest that managers concerned with productivity of mule deer populations should consider focusing on assessing and improving quality of forage available in summer and autumn.
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Vol. 74 • No. 5