, Volume 60, Issue 1, pp 135-142

Adaptation to oak and other fibrous, phenolic-rich foliage by a small mammal, Neotoma fuscipes

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Neotoma fuscipes, a small mammalian herbivore with apparently generalized food habits, was laboratory tested to determine its degree of dietary specialization. Woodrats from both oak woodland and coastal sage communities preferred Quercus agrifolia leaves (containing 40% phenolics and about 16% condensed tannin) over foliage from other dominant species. Approximately one-third of the oak phenolics and less than 10% of the oak condensed tannin remained in the feces. Their performance on pure oak leaves was comparable to that on a mixed diet of Quercus, Salvia, Eriogonum, and Rhus, with respect to weight maintenance, digestive efficiency and total amount ingested. Digestive efficiency was low on the oak diet (55%) relative to Salvia (77%), and to achieve similar weight levels, approximately twice as much oak as Salvia was ingested. Woodrats retained more nitrogen as oak consumption increased. Intake of oak and other foods increased with each experimental day. A sympatric species, N. lepida, was unable to maintain weight on oak leaves, although its digestive and polyphenolic-degrading capabilities, and nitrogen retention efficiency were equivalent to those of N. fuscipes. On a weight-adjusted basis, N. lepida ate about half as much oak per day as N. fuscipes. Oak intake may have been reduced by an inability to rapidly degrade fiber, which constitutes about 30% of the oak diet. In natural populations, N. fuscipes selectively feeds on evergreen sclerophyll vegetation high in fiber, tannins and related polyphenolics. Individuals ingest 2–3 plant types at a time, with a single species (oak when available) constituting most of the material consumed. Neotoma lepida diets are also dominated by a single species. The diversity of plant types eaten by different populations of N. lepida suggests that local dietary specializations may be developmentally acquired.