In search of forage: predicting dynamic habitats of Mongolian gazelles using satellite-based estimates of vegetation productivity.

Published online
23 Apr 2008
Content type
Journal article
Journal title
Journal of Applied Ecology

Mueller, T. & Olson, K. A. & Fuller, T. K. & Schaller, G. B. & Murray, M. G. & Leimgruber, P.
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Temporal variability in habitat suitability has important conservation and ecological implications. In grasslands, changes in resource availability can occur at broad spatial scales and enlarge area requirements of ungulate populations, which increases their vulnerability to habitat loss and fragmentation. Understanding and predicting these dynamics, although critical, has received little attention so far. We investigated habitat dynamics for Mongolian gazelles (Procapra gutturosa Pallas) in the eastern steppes of Mongolia. We quantified the distribution of gazelles at four different time periods and tracked primary productivity using Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) data from satellite imagery. A second-order logistic model showed that NDVI was an efficient predictor of gazelle presence. We tested the predictive power of the model with independent data from a gazelle telemetry study: 85% of all relocations were found within the predicted area. Gazelles preferred an intermediate range of vegetation productivity, presumably facing quality quantity trade-offs where areas with low NDVI are limited by low ingestion rates, and areas with high NDVI are limited by the low digestibility of mature forage. Spatiotemporal variation of gazelle habitat areas was high. Only 15% of the study area was consistently gazelle habitat throughout all survey periods, indicating that gazelles need to range over vast areas in search of food. Only 1% of the gazelle habitats were consistently located inside protected areas. Synthesis and applications. Habitat variability in grasslands often leads to area requirements of ungulates that prevent effective conservation within single protected areas. They require landscape-level management plans, but dynamic habitat predictions to inform such plans are difficult to implement and are often unavailable. We showed that satellite estimates of vegetation productivity can be used successfully to generate dynamic habitat models in landscapes with highly variable resources, and demonstrated that intermediate NDVI values were critical to predict occurrence of Mongolian gazelles.

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