Spring Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) predicts annual variation in timing of peak faecal crude protein in mountain ungulates.
In recent years, the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) has been used to assess the relationships between habitat quality and animal life-history traits. Since numerous ecological studies now use NDVI rather than perform direct vegetation assessments, field validations are essential to provide confidence in the biological significance of NDVI estimates. While some studies have compared NDVI with plant biomass, very few examined the relationship between NDVI and changes in vegetation quality. Using data from two long-term studies of alpine ungulates, we assessed the relationship between two NDVI indices and the date of peak in faecal crude protein (FCP), which represents temporal variability in the availability of high-quality vegetation. We also evaluated if NDVI data could predict annual variation in the timing of spring green-up. In both populations, integrated NDVI in June was negatively correlated with the date of the peak in FCP, indicating that high integrated NDVI values corresponded to early springs in alpine habitats. Maximum NDVI increase during spring green-up was positively correlated with the timing of peak FCP, illustrating that rapid increases in NDVI represented delayed springs. Predicted values of date of peak FCP estimated each year from NDVI data satisfactorily fitted observed values, and prediction intervals included all observed values. These results suggest that NDVI can reliably predict variation over years in the timing of spring. Synthesis and applications. Our long-term studies demonstrate that a multi-year time series of Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) can reliably measure yearly changes in the timing of the availability of high-quality vegetation for temperate herbivores. This finding therefore supports the use of NDVI as a proxy for vegetation attributes in population ecology and wildlife management studies.