With support from two grants from the National Science Foundation, Jennifer Forbey, assistant professor of biological sciences at Boise State University, is working with researchers from universities in Washington, Florida and California along with biologists from state and federal agencies, to determine how the quality of sagebrush as food influences the success of pygmy rabbits and sage grouse.
“Pygmy rabbits and sage grouse are among 1 percent of all plant-eating mammals and birds that rely entirely on a single plant for food,” said Forbey, assistant professor of biological sciences at Boise State. “Both only exist where you find sagebrush. Unfortunately sagebrush habitats are considered one of the most threatened ecosystems in North America.”
A $980,000 NSF grant will be used by Forbey and the other researchers to explore how pygmy rabbits make decisions between eating the highest quality sagebrush and using sagebrush to hide from predators and extreme temperatures.
Unique chemistry and different nutrient levels can affect whether the rabbits eat or ignore the plants.
“Past conservation of sagebrush habitat focused on cover characteristics, not food quality. We are trying to change that approach,” Forbey said.
A second grant of $470,000 will allow the researchers to study how availability and selection for tasty sagebrush affects courtship displays of male sage grouse. If the grouse have to travel farther away from mating sites, called leks, for tasty sagebrush, they may use more energy traveling and be at a greater risk of being attacked by predators. Males that eat low quality sagebrush near a lek may not have the strength for the intense mating rituals required to attract females.
“We want to identify what makes certain sagebrush tasty and how that diet quality influences their reproductive success,” Forbey said. “We can then map, monitor and restore the distribution of tasty plants to improve the mating success of sage grouse.”
Forbey and her fellow researchers will use cutting-edge technologies for observation and experimentation, including a robot grouse capable of mimicking female grouse behaviors and wireless devices that measure real time movement of grouse.
Pygmy rabbits and sage grouse are both threatened species, Forbey noted. “Everyone wants to prevent the loss of these iconic animals, which also would prevent economic consequences associated with listing them as endangered species,” she said. “Our research could help identify which types of sagebrush help promote the healthiest populations of pygmy rabbits and sage grouse and can help keep these species off the endangered species list.”