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Oecologia

, Volume 165, Issue 1, pp 89–99 | Cite as

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

  • Jacqueline CodronEmail author
  • Daryl Codron
  • Julia A. Lee-Thorp
  • Matt Sponheimer
  • Kevin Kirkman
  • Kevin J. Duffy
  • Judith Sealy
Behavioral ecology - Original Paper

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.

Keywords

Browse Grass Kruger Park Megaherbivore Mixed-feeder 

Notes

Acknowledgments

We thank the staff of the Kruger National Park, in particular R. Grant, I. Whyte, H. Biggs, A. de Buys, A. Gaylard, C. Trennery, R. Jansen van Vuuren, D. Nariandas, O. Mathebula, W. Dhinda, and J. Baloyi. We thank J. Sealy, J. Lanham, I. Newton, and T. Duda at the University of Cape Town, and T. Cerling, D. Dearing, and J. Ehleringer at the University of Utah. E. Codron assisted with fieldwork. Three anonymous reviewers are thanked for their useful comments on the manuscript. This project was supported by grants from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, National Research Foundation (NRF, RSA), University of Cape Town, START/PACOM, and the National Science Foundation (NSF, USA). Experiments in this study comply with the current laws of the Republic of South Africa, the country in which they were performed.

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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jacqueline Codron
    • 1
    • 2
    • 7
    Email author
  • Daryl Codron
    • 1
    • 3
  • Julia A. Lee-Thorp
    • 4
  • Matt Sponheimer
    • 5
  • Kevin Kirkman
    • 1
  • Kevin J. Duffy
    • 6
  • Judith Sealy
    • 2
  1. 1.School of Biological and Conservation SciencesUniversity of KwaZulu-NatalScottsvilleRSA
  2. 2.Department of ArchaeologyUniversity of Cape TownRondeboschRSA
  3. 3.Clinic for Zoo Animals, Exotic Pets and Wildlife, Vetsuisse FacultyUniversity of ZurichZurichSwitzerland
  4. 4.Division of Archaeological, Environmental and Geographical SciencesBradford UniversityBradfordUK
  5. 5.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of Colorado at BoulderBoulderUSA
  6. 6.Centre for Systems ResearchDurban Institute of TechnologyDurbanRSA
  7. 7.ZurichSwitzerland

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