Year of Publication
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Arts and Sciences
Dr. Philip H. Crowley
Dr. John J. Cox
Investigating how and why individuals interact is an important component to understanding species ecology. The type and patterning of relationships (social structure) provides pertinent insight into how ecological factors such as spatial heterogeneity of resources and predation influence associations between individuals. Many taxa exhibit temporally fluid association patterns, where individuals associate with a variety of others at different rates. Ungulate species exhibit prime examples of highly fluid grouping patterns and individuals form both temporary and long-term associations. The effects of human disturbance on ungulate behavior are well documented and these changes are further exacerbated during the hunting season. Species such as elk (Cervus canadensis) are highly managed having subsistence, recreational, and economic value. The demographic effects of selective take or harvest regimes on population dynamics are known, but how human disturbance, including hunting, influences ungulate social structure on a fine-scale has not been explored. I aimed to investigate the relationship between human disturbance and social structure in a population of elk residing in southeastern, Kentucky, USA. I choose to focus on female elk given the importance of adult female survival to population dynamics and previous knowledge of some social affinity between females. I begin by discussing factors that influence ungulate sociality, how human disturbance can influence sociality and how a better understanding of association patterns could aid in management decisions. I then present two distinct yet vital studies to understanding this relationship: (1) investigation of survival of elk in Kentucky and (2) investigation of association patterns in a human dominated landscape. Hunter harvest is the primary cause of elk mortality in both eastern and western populations in North America and 85.2% of all elk mortalities in Kentucky were hunter harvest related. Older (> 5) males and younger (< 2) females had significantly higher hazards of dying relative to other age classes. Moreover, the establishment of a limited entry hunting area to prevent local overharvest of males had no effect on male survival, but instead may have resulted in local overharvest of females at one site residing on publicly accessible land. Female elk exhibit both weak and strong association patterns. I found that relatedness was significantly greater within sites, similar to patterns found in other cervid species. Association patterns within sites were not explained by age class; and relatedness was only positively correlated at one site. The sites investigated differed in the type and frequency of human disturbance, specifically hunting, suggesting that the disparity in association patterns were driven by these differences. I conclude with two smaller studies, suggesting an indirect consequence of coal surface mining disturbance on ungulate foraging behavior and the potential for interstate transfer of ecto-parasites during reintroduction efforts. This research reinforces previous findings and further refines our understanding of ungulate social structure. Consideration of temporal variation in association patterns of ungulates and other species is important to quantify the effect of disturbance on population and social processes, but also to increase our understanding of dynamic structures. Quantifying the resiliency of structure to disturbance is a priority to further our understanding of the ecology and conservation of these species.
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
This research was primarily funded by Pitman-Robertson (PR) aid administered by Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, as well as by two Project Acquisition Committee grants through the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Additional funding includes University of Kentucky Department of Biology, Sigma Xi Grant-in-Aid, and the Kerri Casner Fellowship.
Slabach, Brittany L., "THE ROLE OF SOCIALITY AND DISTURBANCE IN SHAPING ELK (CERVUS CANADENSIS) POPULATION STRUCTURE" (2018). Theses and Dissertations--Biology. 56.