Diet and Habitat of Mountain Woodland Caribou Inferred from Dung Preserved in 5000-year-old Alpine Ice in the Selwyn Mountains, Northwest Territories, Canada
Alpine ice patches are unique repositories of cryogenically preserved archaeological artefacts and biological specimens. Recent melting of ice in the Selwyn Mountains, Northwest Territories, Canada, has exposed layers of dung accumulated during seasonal use of ice patches by mountain woodland caribou of the ancestral Redstone population over the past ca. 5250 years. Although attempts to isolate the DNA of known caribou parasites were unsuccessful, the dung has yielded numerous well-preserved and diverse plant remains and palynomorphs. Plant remains preserved in dung suggest that the ancestral Redstone caribou population foraged on a variety of lichens (30%), bryophytes and lycopods (26.7%), shrubs (21.6%), grasses (10.5%), sedges (7.8%), and forbs (3.4%) during summer use of alpine ice. Dung palynomorph assemblages depict a mosaic of plant communities growing in the caribou’s summer habitat, including downslope boreal components and upslope floristically diverse herbaceous communities. Pollen and spore content of dung is only broadly similar to late Holocene assemblages preserved in lake sediments and peat in the study region, and differences are likely due to the influence of local vegetation and animal forage behaviour. The 5000-year legacy of summer use of alpine ice patches by mountain woodland caribou suggests that these small, long-lived features may be important for the health of caribou populations in the Selwyn/Mackenzie Mountain range.