Resource Availability and Quality Influence Patterns of Diet Mixing by Sheep

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Journal of Chemical Ecology

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In grazing systems, forage availability is a function of herbivore density, which can influence an animal's ability to be selective. In turn, the influence of food availability on selectivity has the potential to influence plant biodiversity. We hypothesized that the ability of herbivores to mix toxin-containing foods in their diets is a function of the availability of nontoxic foods and the nutritional characteristics of the toxin-containing foods. We evaluated this hypothesis in two trials simulating different diet qualities (high-quality foods in trial 1, low-quality foods in trial 2). Within each trial, the four treatment groups were offered with different amounts of nutritious, familiar foods—10, 30, 50, and 70% of ad libitum intake—but were offered with ad libitum access to toxin-containing foods. Each lamb was presented with five foods, including three toxin-containing unfamiliar foods (terpenes, tannins, and oxalates) and two nutritious familiar foods (alfalfa and barley). In trial 1, as the availability of nutritious familiar foods decreased, animals ate more of all three toxin-containing foods. As the availability of nutritious alternatives increased, the pattern of selection shifted from terpenes to tannins and oxalates. In trial 2, animals also ate more toxins as the availability of nutritious alternatives decreased, but their pattern of diet mixing changed. Low availability of nutritious alternatives resulted in the animals eating more oxalates. During preference tests when all five foods were offered ad libitum, animals fed with 10, 30, 50, and 70% of ad libitum intake from trial 1 ate 49, 47, 41, and 38% of the three toxin-containing foods, respectively. The lower diet quality in trial 2 affected intake of the toxin-containing foods such that animals fed with 10, 30, 50, and 70% of ad libitum intake ate 37, 36, 29, and 27%, respectively, of the three toxin-containing foods. Thus, the quality of toxin-containing foods and the availability of nutritious alternatives interacted to modify the pattern of diet mixing by lambs.

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