Mechanisms of individual variation in large herbivore diets: Roles of spatial heterogeneity and state-dependent foraging

Reena H. Walker, Matthew C. Hutchinson, Arjun B. Potter, Justine A. Becker, Ryan A. Long, Robert M. Pringle

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Many populations of consumers consist of relatively specialized individuals that eat only a subset of the foods consumed by the population at large. Although the ecological significance of individual-level diet variation is recognized, such variation is difficult to document, and its underlying mechanisms are poorly understood. Optimal foraging theory provides a useful framework for predicting how individuals might select different diets, positing that animals balance the “opportunity cost” of stopping to eat an available food item against the cost of searching for something more nutritious; diet composition should be contingent on the distribution of food, and individual foragers should be more selective when they have greater energy reserves to invest in searching for high-quality foods. We tested these predicted mechanisms of individual niche differentiation by quantifying environmental (resource heterogeneity) and organismal (nutritional condition) determinants of diet in a widespread browsing antelope (bushbuck, Tragelaphus sylvaticus) in an African floodplain-savanna ecosystem. We quantified individuals' realized dietary niches (taxonomic richness and composition) using DNA metabarcoding of fecal samples collected repeatedly from 15 GPS-collared animals (range 6–14 samples per individual, median 12). Bushbuck diets were structured by spatial heterogeneity and constrained by individual condition. We observed significant individual-level partitioning of food plants by bushbuck both within and between two adjacent habitat types (floodplain and woodland). Individuals with home ranges that were closer together and/or had similar vegetation structure (measured using LiDAR) ate more similar diets, supporting the prediction that heterogeneous resource distribution promotes individual differentiation. Individuals in good nutritional condition had significantly narrower diets (fewer plant taxa), searched their home ranges more intensively (intensity-of-use index), and had higher-quality diets (percent digestible protein) than those in poor condition, supporting the prediction that animals with greater endogenous reserves have narrower realized niches because they can invest more time in searching for nutritious foods. Our results support predictions from optimal foraging theory about the energetic basis of individual-level dietary variation and provide a potentially generalizable framework for understanding how individuals' realized niche width is governed by animal behavior and physiology in heterogeneous landscapes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere3921
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


  • Gorongosa National Park
  • Mozambique
  • dietary niche differentiation
  • endogenous resources
  • intraspecific individual variability
  • niche variation hypothesis
  • optimal foraging theory
  • resource partitioning
  • state-dependent behavior
  • trophic specialization


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