Bighorn sheep associations: Understanding tradeoffs of sociality and implications for disease transmission

By: , and 



Sociality directly influences mating success, survival rates, and disease, but ultimately likely evolved for its fitness benefits in a challenging environment. The tradeoffs between the costs and benefits of sociality can operate at multiple scales, resulting in different interpretations of animal behavior. We investigated the influence of intrinsic (e.g., relatedness, age) and extrinsic factors (e.g., land cover type, season) on direct contact (simultaneous GPS locations ≤ 25 m) rates of bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) at multiple scales near the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. During 2002–2012, male and female bighorn were equipped with GPS collars. Indirect contact (GPS locations ≤ 25 m regardless of time) networks identified two major breaks whereas direct contact networks identified an additional barrier in the population, all of which corresponded with prior disease exposure metrics. More direct contacts occurred between same-sex dyads than female-male dyads and between bighorn groups with overlapping summer home ranges. Direct contacts occurred most often during the winter-spring season when bighorn traveled at low speeds and when an adequate number of bighorn were collared in the area. Direct contact probabilities for all dyad types were inversely related to habitat quality, and differences in contact probability were driven by variables related to survival such as terrain ruggedness, distance to escape terrain, and canopy cover. We provide evidence that probabilities of association are higher when there is greater predation risk and that contact analysis provides valuable information for understanding fitness tradeoffs of sociality and disease transmission potential.

Study Area

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Bighorn sheep associations: Understanding tradeoffs of sociality and implications for disease transmission
Series title PeerJ
DOI 10.7717/peerj.15625
Volume 11
Year Published 2023
Language English
Publisher PeerJ Inc.
Contributing office(s) Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center
Description e15625, 28 p.
Country Canada, United States
State Alberta, British Columbia, Montana
Other Geospatial Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details