How rainfall variation influences reproductive patterns of African Savanna ungulates in an equatorial region where photoperiod variation is absent

In high temperate latitudes, ungulates generally give birth within a narrow time window when conditions are optimal for offspring survival in spring or early summer, and use changing photoperiod to time conceptions so as to anticipate these conditions. However, in low tropical latitudes day length variation is minimal, and rainfall variation makes the seasonal cycle less predictable. Nevertheless, several ungulate species retain narrow birth peaks under such conditions, while others show births spread quite widely through the year. We investigated how within-year and between-year variation in rainfall influenced the reproductive timing of four ungulate species showing these contrasting patterns in the Masai Mara region of Kenya. All four species exhibited birth peaks during the putative optimal period in the early wet season. For hartebeest and impala, the birth peak was diffuse and offspring were born throughout the year. In contrast, topi and warthog showed a narrow seasonal concentration of births, with conceptions suppressed once monthly rainfall fell below a threshold level. High rainfall in the previous season and high early rains in the current year enhanced survival into the juvenile stage for all the species except impala. Our findings reveal how rainfall variation affecting grass growth and hence herbivore nutrition can govern the reproductive phenology of ungulates in tropical latitudes where day length variation is minimal. The underlying mechanism seems to be the suppression of conceptions once nutritional gains become insufficient. Through responding proximally to within-year variation in rainfall, tropical savanna ungulates are less likely to be affected adversely by the consequences of global warming for vegetation phenology than northern ungulates showing more rigid photoperiodic control over reproductive timing.