Mechanisms of dietary resource partitioning in large-herbivore assemblages: A plant-trait-based approach

Arjun B. Potter, Matthew C. Hutchinson, Johan Pansu, Bart Wursten, Ryan A. Long, Jonathan M. Levine, Robert M. Pringle

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


Sympatric large mammalian herbivore species differ in diet composition, both by eating different parts of the same plant and by eating different plant species. Various theories proposed to explain these differences are not mutually exclusive, but are difficult to reconcile and confront with data. Moreover, whereas several of these ideas were originally developed with reference to within-plant partitioning (i.e. consumption of different tissues), they may analogously apply to partitioning of plant species; this possibility has received little attention. Plant functional traits provide a novel window into herbivore diets and a means of testing multiple hypotheses in a unified framework. We used DNA metabarcoding to characterize the diets of 14 sympatric large-herbivore species in an African savanna and analysed diet composition in light of 27 functional traits that we measured locally for 204 plant species. Plant traits associated with the deep phylogenetic split between grasses and eudicots formed the primary axis of resource partitioning, affirming the generality and importance of the grazer–browser spectrum. A secondary axis comprised plant traits relevant to herbivore body size. Plant taxa in the diets of large-bodied species were lower on average in digestible energy and protein, taller on average (especially among grazers), and tended to be higher in tensile strength, zinc, stem-specific density, and potassium (and lower in sodium, stem dry matter content, and copper). These results are consistent with longstanding hypotheses linking body size with forage quality and height, yet they also suggest the existence of undiscovered links between herbivore body size and a set of rarely considered food–plant traits. We also tested the novel hypothesis that the leaf economic spectrum (LES), a major focus in plant ecology, is an axis of resource partitioning in large-herbivore assemblages; we found that the LES was a minor axis of individual variation within a few species, but had little effect on interspecific dietary differentiation. Synthesis. These results identify key plant traits that underpin the partitioning of food–plant species in large-herbivore communities and suggest that accounting for multiple plant traits (and trade-offs among them) will enable a deeper understanding of herbivore–plant interaction networks.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)817-832
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Ecology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2022
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Plant Science


  • Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique
  • Jarman–Bell principle
  • dietary niche partitioning
  • herbivory
  • leaf economic spectrum
  • plant functional traits
  • resource-availability hypothesis
  • ungulate foraging behaviour


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