Coping with unpredictable environments: fine-tune foraging microhabitat use in relation to prey availability in an alpine species

Oecologia. 2024 Apr;204(4):845-860. doi: 10.1007/s00442-024-05530-1. Epub 2024 Apr 9.


Microhabitat utilisation holds a pivotal role in shaping a species' ecological dynamics and stands as a crucial concern for effective conservation strategies. Despite its critical importance, microhabitat use has frequently been addressed as static, centering on microhabitat preference. Yet, a dynamic microhabitat use that allows individuals to adjust to fine-scale spatio-temporal prey fluctuations, becomes imperative for species thriving in challenging environments. High-elevation ecosystems, marked by brief growing seasons and distinct abiotic processes like snowmelt, winds, and solar radiation, feature an ephemeral distribution of key resources. To better understand species' strategies in coping with these rapidly changing environments, we delved into the foraging behaviour of the white-winged snowfinch Montifringilla nivalis, an emblematic high-elevation passerine. Through studying microhabitat preferences during breeding while assessing invertebrate prey availability, we unveiled a highly flexible microhabitat use process. Notably, snowfinches exhibited specific microhabitat preferences, favoring grass and melting snow margins, while also responding to local invertebrate availability. This behaviour was particularly evident in snow-associated microhabitats and less pronounced amid tall grass. Moreover, our investigation underscored snowfinches' fidelity to foraging sites, with over half located within 10 m of previous spots. This consistent use prevailed in snow-associated microhabitats and high-prey-density zones. These findings provide the first evidence of dynamic microhabitat use in high-elevation ecosystems and offer further insights into the crucial role of microhabitats for climate-sensitive species. They call for multi-faceted conservation strategies that go beyond identifying and protecting optimal thermal buffering areas in the face of global warming to also encompass locations hosting high invertebrate densities.

Keywords: Montifringilla nivalis; Arthropods; Climate change; Foraging site fidelity; Mountain birds.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Ecosystem*
  • Predatory Behavior