Context . Reproductive seasonality in ungulates has important fitness consequences but its relationship to resource seasonality is not yet fully understood, especially for ungulates inhabiting equatorial environments.
Aims . We test hypotheses concerning synchronisation of conception or parturition peaks among African ungulates with seasonal peaks in forage quality and quantity, indexed by rainfall.
Methods . We relate monthly apparent fecundity and juvenile recruitment rates to monthly rainfall for six ungulate species inhabiting the Masai Mara National Reserve (Mara) of Kenya, using cross-correlation analysis and distributed lag non-linear models. We compare the phenology and synchrony of breeding among the Mara ungulates with those for other parts of equatorial East Africa, with bimodal rainfall and less seasonal forage variation, and for subtropical southern Africa, with unimodal rainfall distribution and greater seasonal forage variation.
Key results . Births were more synchronised for topi, warthog and zebra than for hartebeest, impala and giraffe in the Mara, and for impala and hartebeest in southern than in eastern Africa. This pattern is likely to reflect regional differences in climate and plant phenology, hider–follower dichotomy and grazing versus browsing. All six species except the browsing giraffe apparently time the conception to occur in one wet season and births to occur just before the onset or during the next wet season, so as to maximise high-quality forage intake during conception and parturition. Fecundity and recruitment rates among the African ungulates peak at intermediate levels of rainfall and are reduced at low or excessive levels of rainfall. Fecundity rate is most strongly positively correlated with rainfall pre-conception, during conception and during early gestation, followed by rainfall at about the time of parturition for all the grazers. For giraffe, fecundity rate is most strongly correlated with rainfall during the gestation period.
Conclusions . Rainfall seasonality strongly influences reproductive seasonality and juvenile recruitment among African ungulates. The interaction of the rainfall influence with life-history traits and other factors leads to wide interspecific and regional variation.
Implications . Global climate change, especially widening annual rainfall variation expected to result from global warming, could reduce the predictability of the timing of peak forage availability and quality based on meteorological cues, the length of time with adequate nutrition or both, and hence reduce reproductive success among tropical ungulates.