The effect of plant spatial pattern within a patch on foraging selectivity of grazing sheep
Plant spatial pattern has been considered as one of the most important factors influencing forage selection of herbivores in natural grasslands. Previous work has emphasized the effects of spatial distribution patterns of food resource at the scale of whole plant communities. Our objective was to explore whether changes in spatial patterns of food within a patchy site affected forage selection of sheep within and among patches. We conducted a manipulative experiment using three native plant species of different palatability and abundance to artificially create three different quality patches in each treatment. We compared the effects of aggregated and randomly dispersed patterns, within high, medium, and low quality patches respectively, on sheep forage selection. Effects of plant spatial patterns within a patch on sheep forage selection of the patch itself strongly depended on the patch quality. For high quality patches, random dispersion of food resources significantly decreased sheep consumption of the palatable plant within the patch. This effect was reversed in low quality patches, and was not significant in medium quality patches. Changes in plant spatial patterns within high quality patches greatly influenced sheep forage selection of other patches. However, changes in plant spatial patterns within medium or low quality patches significantly influenced foraging responses of sheep only for high quality patches. We therefore conclude that high quality resource sites are the most influential and susceptible foraging areas. Our results highlight the importance of high quality resource sites when considering grazing grassland conservation and management.
KeywordsDiet selection Foraging decision Plant spatial distribution Spatial scale
We thank Guang Bo Zhang, Chao Feng for help with their technical assistance and Brian J. Wilsey for providing valuable comments on early drafts of this manuscript. This project was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (nos. 31072070, 31070294, 31100331) and the State Agricultural Commonweal Project (200903060-2, 201003019).
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