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Causes and consequences of an unusually male-biased adult sex ratio in an unmanaged feral horse population


Regan, Charlotte; Medill, Sarah; Poissant, Jocelyn; McLoughlin, Philip (2020), Causes and consequences of an unusually male-biased adult sex ratio in an unmanaged feral horse population, Dryad, Dataset,


1. The adult sex ratio (ASR) is important within ecology due to its predicted effects on behaviour, demography, and evolution, but research examining the causes and consequences of ASR bias have lagged behind studies of sex ratios at earlier life stages. Although ungulate ASR is relatively well-studied, exceptions to the usual female-biased ASR challenge our understanding of the underlying drivers of biased ASR, and provide an opportunity to better understand its consequences.

2. Some feral ungulate populations, including multiple horse populations, exhibit unusually male-biased ASR. For example, research suggests that the feral horse (Equus ferus caballus) population on Sable Island, Nova Scotia, Canada, may exhibit a male-biased ASR. Such exceptions to the rule provide a valuable opportunity to reveal the contributions of environmental context and trait differences to ASR bias.

3. We aimed to test for bias in Sable Island horse ASR, identify the demographic drivers of bias, and explore its demographic and social consequences. To do this, we used life-history, movement, and group membership information for hundreds of horses followed through a long-term individual-based study between 2007 and 2018.

4. Sable Island horse ASR is male-biased, and this skew has increased over time, reaching 62% male in 2018. Our life table response experiment suggested that ASR skew was driven predominantly by male-biased adult survival. Further analyses pointed to sex-biased survival being driven by reduced female survival post-reproduction. Male-biased ASR was associated with reduced harem sizes, an increase in the number of social groups on the island, and reduced reproduction in young females.

5. Our results support the idea that male-biased ASR in feral ungulate populations may be caused by a combination of high population density and high reproductive output. We suggest that female-biased mortality may be caused by females continuing to reproduce at high density, and thus being more susceptible to resource shortages. Thus, our results highlight the strong context-dependence of ASR. Furthermore, our work indicates the potential for ASR to substantially alter a population's social organisation. Such changes in social structure could have knock-on consequences for demography by altering the formation/stability of social relationships, or competition for matings.