, Volume 178, Issue 1, pp 31–43 | Cite as

Resource availability affects individual niche variation and its consequences in group-living European badgers Meles meles

  • Andrew RobertsonEmail author
  • Robbie A. McDonald
  • Richard J. Delahay
  • Simon D. Kelly
  • Stuart BearhopEmail author
Special Topic: Individual-level niche specialization


Although intra-population variation in niches is a widespread phenomenon with important implications for ecology, evolution and management of a range of animal species, the causes and consequences of this variation remain poorly understood. We used stable isotope analysis to characterise foraging niches and to investigate the causes and consequences of individual niche variation in the European badger, a mustelid mammal that lives in territorial social groups, but forages alone. We found that the degree of individual niche variation within social groups was negatively related to the availability of farmland habitats, which represent an important foraging habitat for badgers; and was positively related to territory size, supporting the idea that resource limitation and ecological opportunity lead to increased individual specialisation. We also found that the degree of individual specialisation related to an individual’s body condition and that this effect varied with ecological context; such that specialisation had a stronger positive relationship with body condition in social groups with reduced availability of key farmland habitats. Body condition was also related to the utilisation of specific resources (woodland invertebrates), but again this relationship varied with the availability of farmland foraging habitats. This study supports the idea that resource availability plays an important role in determining patterns of individual niche variation, and identifies the potential adaptive consequences of specialised foraging strategies.


Individual specialisation Stable isotope analysis Meles meles Niche variation Resource competition 



We thank the National Wildlife Management Centre’s Woodchester Park field team for carrying out the trapping and sampling of badgers to obtain whiskers for the purposes of this study. We would also like to thank Gareth Rees for his help with the stable isotope analysis. Work involving live badgers was carried out under a UK Home Office licence, in accordance with the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, and was subject to a University ethical review process. This research was funded by the European Social Fund (ESF). The longer-term Woodchester Park study is supported by the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. SB is funded by an EU consolidator’s grant: STATEMIG 310820.


  1. Araújo MS, Bolnick DI, Layman CA (2011) The ecological causes of individual specialisation. Ecol Lett 14:948–958. doi: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2011.01662.x CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  2. Authier M, Dragon a-C, Richard P, Cherel Y, Guinet C (2012) O’ mother where wert thou? Maternal strategies in the southern elephant seal: a stable isotope investigation. Proc R Soc B Biol Sci 282:2681–2690. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2012.0199 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bearhop S, Adams CE, Waldron S, Fuller RA, MacLeod H (2004) Determining trophic niche width: a novel approach using stable isotope analysis. J Anim Ecol 73:1007–1012CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bodey TW, Bearhop S, Roy SS, Newton J, McDonald Ra (2010) Behavioural responses of invasive American mink Neovison vison to an eradication campaign, revealed by stable isotope analysis. J Appl Ecol 47:114–120. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2664.2009.01739.x CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bolnick DI (2004) Can intraspecific competition drive disruptive selection? An experimental test in natural populations of sticklebacks. Evolution 58:608–618CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Bolnick DI et al (2002) Measuring individual-level resource specialization. Ecology 83:2936–2941CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bolnick DI et al (2003) The ecology of individuals: incidence and implications of individual specialization. Am Nat 161:1–28CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  8. Bolnick DI, Svanbäck R, Araújo MS, Persson L (2007) Comparative support for the niche variation hypothesis that more generalized populations also are more heterogeneous. Proc Natl Acad Sci 104:10075CrossRefPubMedCentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Bolnick DI et al (2011) Why intraspecific trait variation matters in community ecology. Trends Ecol Evol 26:183–192. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2011.01.009 CrossRefPubMedCentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
  10. Caut S, Angulo E, Courchamp F (2009) Variation in discrimination factors (Δ 15 N and Δ 13°C): the effect of diet isotopic values and applications for diet reconstruction. J Appl Ecol 46:443–453. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2664.2009.01620.x CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Chilvers B, Wilkinson I (2009) Diverse foraging strategies in lactating New Zealand sea lions. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 378:299–308. doi: 10.3354/meps07846 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Crawford K, McDonald RA, Bearhop S (2008) Applications of stable isotope techniques to the ecology of mammals. Mamm Rev 38:87–107CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Cucherousset J, Acou A, Blanchet S, Britton JR, Beaumont WRC, Gozlan RE (2011) Fitness consequences of individual specialisation in resource use and trophic morphology in European eels. Oecologia 167:75–84. doi: 10.1007/s00442-011-1974-4 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  14. Dall SRX, Bell AM, Bolnick DI, Ratnieks FLW, Sih A (2012) An evolutionary ecology of individual differences. Ecol Lett 15:1189–1198. doi: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2012.01846.x CrossRefPubMedCentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Darimont C, Paquet P, Reimchen T (2007) Stable isotopic niche predicts fitness of prey in a wolf-deer system. Biol J Linn Soc 90:125–138CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Darimont CT, Paquet PC, Reimchen TE (2009) Landscape heterogeneity and marine subsidy generate extensive intrapopulation niche diversity in a large terrestrial vertebrate. J Anim Ecol 78:126–133. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2656.2008.01473.x CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  17. Delahay RJ et al (2000) The use of marked bait in studies of the territorial organization of the European Badger (Meles meles). Mamm Rev 30:73–87. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2907.2000.00058.x CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Delahay RJ, Carter SP, Forrester GJ, Mitchell A, Cheeseman CL (2006) Habitat correlates of group size, bodyweight and reproductive performance in a high-density Eurasian badger (Meles meles) population. J Zool 270:437–447. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7998.2006.00165.x CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Deniro M, Epstein S (1978) Influence of diet on the distribution of carbon isotopes in animals. Geochim Cosmochim Acta 42:495–506. doi: 10.1016/0016-7037(78)90199-0 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Deniro M, Epstein S (1981) Influence of diet on the distribution of nitrogen isotopes in animals. Geochim Cosmochim Acta 45:341–351. doi: 10.1016/0016-7037(81)90244-1 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Devictor V et al (2010) Defining and measuring ecological specialization. J Appl Ecol 47:15–25. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2664.2009.01744.x CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Fontaine C, Collin CL, Dajoz I (2008) Generalist foraging of pollinators: diet expansion at high density. J Ecol 96:1002–1010. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2745.2008.01405.x CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Gelman A (2008) Scaling regression inputs by dividing by two standard deviations. Stat Med 27:2865–2873. doi: 10.1002/sim CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  24. Golet G, Kuletz K, Roby D, Irons D (2000) Adult prey choice affects chick growth and reproductive success in pigeon guillemots. Auk 117:82–91CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Grueber CE, Nakagawa S, Laws RJ, Jamieson IG (2011) Multimodel inference in ecology and evolution: challenges and solutions. J Evol Biol 24:699–711. doi: 10.1111/j.1420-9101.2010.02210.x CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  26. Haugen TO, Winfield IJ, Vøllestad LA, Fletcher JM, James JB, Stenseth NC (2006) The ideal free pike: 50 years of fitness-maximizing dispersal in Windermere. Proc Biol Sci R Soc 273:2917–2924. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2006.3659 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Hofer H (1988) Variation in resource presence, utilization and reproductive success within a population of European Badgers (Meles meles). Mamm Rev 18:25–36. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2907.1988.tb00068.x CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Johnson CK et al (2009) Prey choice and habitat use drive sea otter pathogen exposure in a resource-limited coastal system. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 106:2242–2247. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0806449106 CrossRefPubMedCentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
  29. Katzner TE, Bragin EA, Knick ST, Smith AT (2005) Relationship between demographics and diet specificity of Imperial Eagles Aquila heliaca in Kazakhstan. Ibis 147:576–586CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Kobler A, Klefoth T, Mehner T, Arlinghaus R (2009) Coexistence of behavioural types in an aquatic top predator: a response to resource limitation? Oecologia 161:837–847. doi: 10.1007/s00442-009-1415-9 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  31. Kruuk H (1978) Foraging and spatial organisation of the European badger, Meles meles L. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 4:75–89. doi: 10.1007/BF00302562 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Kruuk H (1987) Changes in the size of groups and ranges of the European badger (Meles meles L.) in an area in Scotland. J Anim Ecol 56:351–364CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Kruuk H, Parish T, Brown C, Carrera J (1979) The use of pasture by the European badger (Meles meles). J Appl Ecol 16:453–459CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Layman CA, Quattrochi JP, Peyer CM, Allgeier JE, Suding K (2007) Niche width collapse in a resilient top predator following ecosystem fragmentation. Ecol Lett 10:937CrossRefPubMedCentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
  35. Lecomte N, Ahlstrøm O, Ehrich D, Fuglei E, Ims Ra, Yoccoz NG (2011) Intrapopulation variability shaping isotope discrimination and turnover: experimental evidence in arctic foxes. PloS One 6:e21357. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0021357 CrossRefPubMedCentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
  36. Macdonald D (1983) The ecology of carnivore social behaviour. Nature 301:379–384CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Macdonald DW, Stewart PD, Johnson PJ, Porkert J, Buesching C (2002) No evidence of social hierarchy amongst feeding badgers, Meles meles. Ethology 108:613–628. doi: 10.1046/j.1439-0310.2002.00807.x CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Martin RA, Pfennig DW (2009) Disruptive selection in natural populations: the roles of ecological specialization and resource competition. Am Nat 174:268–281. doi: 10.1086/600090 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  39. Matich P, Heithaus MR, Layman CA (2011) Contrasting patterns of individual specialization and trophic coupling in two marine apex predators. J Anim Ecol 80:294–305. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2656.2010.01753.x CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  40. Nakagawa S, Schielzeth H (2013) A general and simple method for obtaining R 2 from generalized linear mixed-effects models. Methods Ecol Evol 4:133–142. doi: 10.1111/j.2041-210x.2012.00261.x CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Newsome SD et al (2009) Using stable isotopes to investigate individual diet specialization in California sea otters (Enhydra lutris nereis). Ecology 90:961–974CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  42. Newsome SD et al (2010) Variation in delta 13°C and delta 15 N diet-vibrissae trophic discrimination factors in a wild population of California sea otters. Ecol Appl Publ Ecol Soc Am 20:1744–1752Google Scholar
  43. Newsome SD, Yeakel JD, Wheatley PV, Tinker MT (2012) Tools for quantifying isotopic niche space and dietary variation at the individual and population level. J Mamm 93:329–341. doi: 10.1644/11-MAMM-S-187.1 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Parnell AC, Inger R, Bearhop S, Jackson AL (2010) Source partitioning using stable isotopes: coping with too much variation. PLoS One 5:e9672. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0009672 CrossRefPubMedCentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
  45. Peig J, Green AJ (2009) New perspectives for estimating body condition from mass/length data: the scaled mass index as an alternative method. Oikos 118:1883–1891. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0706.2009.17643.x CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Persson L (1985) Optimal foraging: the difficulty of exploiting different feeding strategies simultaneously. Oecologia 67:338–341CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Phillips DL (2012) Converting isotope values to diet composition: the use of mixing models. J Mamm 93:342–352. doi: 10.1644/11-MAMM-S-158.1 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Pyke GH, Pulliam HR, Charnov EL (1977) Optimal foraging: a selective review of theory and tests. Q Rev Biol 52:137–154CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Revilla E (2001) Differences in key habitat use between dominant and subordinate animals: intraterritorial dominance payoffs in Eurasian badgers? Can J Zool 170:165–170CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Robertson A, Ra McDonald, Delahay RJ, Kelly SD, Bearhop S (2012) Whisker growth in wild Eurasian badgers Meles meles: implications for stable isotope and bait marking studies. Eur J Wildl Res. doi: 10.1007/s10344-012-0679-2 Google Scholar
  51. Robertson A, McDonald R, Delahay R, Kelly S, Bearhop S (2014) Individual foraging specialisation in a social mammal: the European badger (Meles meles). Oecologia 176:409–421CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  52. Roper T (2010) Badger. HarperCollins, UKGoogle Scholar
  53. Sih A, Cote J, Evans M, Fogarty S, Pruitt J (2012) Ecological implications of behavioural syndromes. Ecol Lett 15:278–289. doi: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2011.01731.x CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  54. Svanbäck R, Bolnick DI (2005) Intraspecific competition affects the strength of individual specialization: an optimal diet theory method. Evol Ecol Res 7:993–1012Google Scholar
  55. Svanbäck R, Bolnick DI (2007) Intraspecific competition drives increased resource use diversity within a natural population. Proc Biol Sci R Soc 274:839–844. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2006.0198 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Svanbäck R, Persson L (2004) Individual diet specialization, niche width and population dynamics: implications for trophic polymorphisms. J Anim Ecol 73:973–982CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Svanbäck R, Persson L (2009) Population density fluctuations change the selection gradient in Eurasian perch. Am Nat 173:507–516. doi: 10.1086/597223 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  58. Tinker MT, Bentall G, Estes JA (2008) Food limitation leads to behavioral diversification and dietary specialization in sea otters. Proc Natl Acad Sci 105:560–565CrossRefPubMedCentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
  59. Tinker MT, Mangel M, Estes JA (2009) Learning to be different: acquired skills, social learning, frequency dependence, and environmental variation can cause behaviourally mediated foraging specializations. Evol Ecol Res 11:841–869Google Scholar
  60. Tinker TM et al (2012) Structure and mechanism of diet specialisation: testing models of individual variation in resource use with sea otters. Ecol Lett 15:475–483. doi: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2012.01760.x CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. van de Pol M, Brouwer L, Ens BJ, Oosterbeek K, Tinbergen JM (2009) Fluctuating selection and the maintenance of individual and sex-specific diet specialization in free-living oystercatchers. Evolution 64:836–851. doi: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2009.00859.x PubMedGoogle Scholar
  62. Violle C et al (2012) The return of the variance: intraspecific variability in community ecology. Trends Ecol Evol 27:244–252. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2011.11.014 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  63. Votier SC, Bearhop S, Ratcliffe N, Furness RW (2004) Reproductive consequences for great skuas specializing as seabird predators. Condor 106:275–287. doi: 10.1650/7261
  64. Warton D, Hui F (2011) The arcsine is asinine: the analysis of proportions in ecology. Ecology 92:3–10CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  65. Whitfield D, Reid R, Haworth P, Madders M (2009) Diet specificity is not associated with increased reproductive performance of golden eagles Aquila chrysaetos in Western Scotland. Ibis 151:255–264CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Woo K, Elliott K, Davidson M, Gaston AJ (2008) Individual specialization in diet by a generalist marine predator reflects specialization in foraging behaviour. J Anim Ecol 77:1082–1091CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Andrew Robertson
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
    Email author
  • Robbie A. McDonald
    • 3
  • Richard J. Delahay
    • 2
  • Simon D. Kelly
    • 4
    • 5
  • Stuart Bearhop
    • 1
    Email author
  1. 1.Centre for Ecology and ConservationUniversity of ExeterPenrynUK
  2. 2.National Wildlife Management CentreAnimal and Plant Health AgencyGloucestershireUK
  3. 3.Environment and Sustainability InstituteUniversity of ExeterPenrynUK
  4. 4.School of Environmental SciencesUniversity of East AngliaNorwichUK
  5. 5.Food and Environment Research AgencyYorkUK

Personalised recommendations