Acquired Aversions as the Basis for Varied Diets of Ruminants Foraging on Rangelands

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Journal of Animal Science

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Ruminants eat an array of plant species that vary in nutrients and toxins. This selection makes intuitive sense, but no theories adequately explain this diversity. Some maintain it reduces the likelihood of overingesting toxins, whereas others contend it meets nutritional needs. Nevertheless, herbivores seek variety even when toxins are not a concern and nutritional needs are met. I offer another explanation for this behavior, one which encompasses the avoidance of toxins and the acquisition of nutrients. A key concept in this theory is aversion, the decrease in preference for food just eaten as a result of sensory input (a food's taste, odor, texture, i.e., its flavor) and postingestive effects (effects of nutrients and toxins on chemo-, osmo-, and mechano-receptors) unique to each food. Aversions are pronounced when foods contain toxins or high levels of rapidly digestible nutrients; they also occur when foods are deficient in specific nutrients. Aversions occur even when animals eat nutritionally adequate foods because satiety (satisfied to the full) and surfeit (filled to nauseating excess) represent points along a continuum, and there is a fine line between satiety and aversion. Thus, eating any food is likely to cause a mild aversion, and eating a food too frequently or in excess is likely to cause a strong aversion. Aversions are involuntary and are not the result of conscious decisions by an animal. Aversions yield benefits (e.g., obtain a balanced diet, reduce ingestion of toxic foods, optimize foraging and rumination times, sample foods, maintain a diverse microflora in the rumen) that are often mistaken as the cause of varied diets. In this article, I discuss the subtle ways in which aversions diminish preference and cause animals to eat a variety of foods.

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