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Opportunistic feeding by lions: non-preferred prey comprise an important part of lion diets in a habitat where preferred prey are abundant

Abstract

Optimal foraging theory predicts less diverse predator diets with a greater availability of preferred prey. This narrow diet niche should then be dominated by preferred prey, with implications for predator–prey dynamics and prey population ecology. We investigated lion (Panthera leo) diets in Hluhluwe–iMfolozi Park (HiP), South Africa, to assess whether lions in a site with a high density of preferred prey (prey species weighing 92–632 kg as estimated from a published meta-analysis) have a narrow diet, consisting primarily of preferred prey. HiP is a useful study site to investigate this prediction because it is a productive landscape (with a high density of prey) where lion-preferred prey constitutes up to 33% of the prey available to lions. Furthermore, to investigate whether lions in HiP exhibit sex-specific diets as documented in other southern African populations, we estimated male and female lion diets separately. We were specifically interested in testing whether traditional approaches of estimating lion diets at the population level mask sex-specific predation patterns, with possible implications for management of lions in small to medium-sized fenced reserves. Lions in HiP preferred larger prey species (63–684 kg) and had diets with a larger proportion of preferred prey than reported in an African-wide meta-analysis. However, despite the high density of preferred prey species, 36% of lion diets still consisted of typically non-preferred species such as nyala (Tragelaphus angasii). This finding suggests that lions in HiP maintain a degree of opportunism even when preferred prey are abundant. Therefore, abundant, non-preferred prey are likely to be an important resource for lion populations. Sex-specific differences in lion diets were evident in HiP, suggesting that estimation of lion resource use and carrying capacity should consider opportunistic hunting and sex-specific differences in lion diets.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Ezemvelo KwaZulu–Natal Wildlife (EKZNW) for permission to work in Hluhluwe–iMfolozi Park and for providing the lion movement data (project permit number: E/5118/02). We thank Drs Dave Cooper and Birgit Eggers, the EKZNW veterinarians, for assistance in immobilising and sampling the lions.

Funding

This research was supported by the Centre for African Conservation Ecology, the Carnegie Institution for Science, the Andrew Mellon Foundation, the Claude Leon Foundation scholarship to E. Le Roux, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, and a South African National Research Foundation Honours scholarship to T. Barnardo. Eleven of the telemetry collars and the field work associated with this project were funded by a grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation to G.P. Asner. The remaining three telemetry collars were funded by a Marie Curie Grant held by J. Cromsigt (grant no. PCIG10-GA-2011-304128).

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Correspondence to Craig J. Tambling.

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Barnardo, T., Tambling, C.J., Davies, A.B. et al. Opportunistic feeding by lions: non-preferred prey comprise an important part of lion diets in a habitat where preferred prey are abundant. Mamm Res (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13364-020-00481-3

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Keywords

  • Panthera leo
  • Opportunistic diets
  • Sex-specific diets
  • Prey preference
  • Hluhluwe–iMfolozi Park