, Volume 165, Issue 1, pp 89-99
Date: 12 Nov 2010

Landscape-scale feeding patterns of African elephant inferred from carbon isotope analysis of feces

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Abstract

The African elephant (Loxodonta africana) is a large-bodied, generalist herbivore that eats both browse and grass. The proportions of browse and grass consumed are largely expected to reflect the relative availability of these resources. We investigated variations in browse (C3 biomass) and grass (C4) intake of the African elephant across seasons and habitats by stable carbon isotope analysis of elephant feces collected from Kruger National Park, South Africa. The results reflect a shift in diet from higher C4 grass intake during wet season months to more C3 browse-dominated diets in the dry season. Seasonal trends were correlated with changes in rainfall and with nitrogen (%N) content of available grasses, supporting predictions that grass is favored when its availability and nutritional value increase. However, switches to dry season browsing were significantly smaller in woodland and grassland habitats where tree communities are dominated by mopane (Colophospermum mopane), suggesting that grasses were favored here even in the dry season. Regional differences in diet did not reflect differences in grass biomass, tree density, or canopy cover. There was a consistent relationship between %C4 intake and tree species diversity, implying that extensive browsing is avoided in habitats characterized by low tree species diversity and strong dominance patterns, i.e., mopane-dominated habitats. Although mopane is known to be a preferred species, maintaining dietary diversity appears to be a constraint to elephants, which they can overcome by supplementing their diets with less abundant resources (dry season grass). Such variations in feeding behavior likely influence the degree of impact on plant communities and can therefore provide key information for managing elephants over large, spatially diverse, areas.

Communicated by Carlos Martinez del Rio.