Sex and age related differences in the dry season feeding patterns of elephants in Chobe National Park, Botswana.

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Differences in feeding patterns of the African elephant were examined by sex and age during the dry season in a dystrophic savanna-woodland ecosystem in northern Botswana. Adult males had the least diverse diet in terms of woody plant species, but they consumed more plant parts than family units. The diameter of stems of food plants broken or bitten off was also greater for adult males than for females and subadult males. Adult males spent more time foraging on each woody plant than did females. The number of woody plant species and individuals present were higher at feeding sites of family units than at feeding sites of adult males, indicating that family units positioned themselves at feeding sites with higher species diversity than those of males. We argue that the most likely explanation for these differences is related to the pronounced sexual size dimorphism exhibited by elephants, resulting in sex differences in browsing patterns due to the allometric relationships that govern the tolerance of herbivores for variation in diet quality. From our results this Body Size Hypothesis is accepted rather than the alternative Scramble Competition Hypothesis, which predicts that adult male elephants consume lower quality browse because they are displaced from preferred browse as an outcome of scramble competition with adult females and their offspring. If the feeding patterns of adult male elephants were affected by intersexual scramble competition, we would expect adult males to browse at a higher level in the canopy than the smaller-bodied females and their offspring. No evidence was found for this, although adult females were found to browse at a higher level in the canopy when feeding in close proximity to subadults and juveniles than when feeding alone. Sex differences in elephant browsing patterns are, we propose, of relevance to understanding and managing elephant impacts on African woodlands.