Consumers make space use decisions based on resource quality. Most studies that investigate the influence of resource quality on the spatial ecology of consumers use diverse proxies for quality including measures based on habitat classification, forage species diversity and abundance, and nutritional indicators, e.g., protein. Ecological stoichiometry measures resource quality in terms of elemental ratios, e.g., carbon (C):nitrogen (N) ratio, but rarely have these currencies been used to study consumer space use decisions. Yet, elemental ratios provide a uniquely quantitative way to assess resource quality. Consequently, ecological stoichiometry allows for investigation of how consumers respond to spatial heterogeneity in resource quality by changing their space use, e.g. their home range size, and how this may influence ecosystem dynamics and trophic interactions. Here, we test whether the home range size of a keystone boreal herbivore, the snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus), varies with differences in the C:N, C:phosphorus (P), and N:P ratios of two preferred forage species, lowland blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium) and red maple (Acer rubrum). We consider forage resources with higher C content relative to N and P to be lower quality than resources with lower relative C content. We use a novel approach, combining elemental distribution models with herbivore home range size estimates to test our hypothesis that hare home range size will be smaller in areas with access to high, homogeneous resource quality compared to areas with access to low, heterogeneous resource quality during summer months. Our results support our prediction for lowland blueberry, but not for red maple. Herbivore home range size decreased with increasing blueberry foliage quality, but also with decreasing spatial heterogeneity in blueberry foliage quality, i.e. N or P content. Herbivores in the boreal forest face strong nutritional constraints due to the paucity of N and P. Access to areas of high, homogeneous resource quality is paramount to meeting their dietary requirements with low effort. In turn, this may influence community (e.g., trophic interactions) and ecosystem (e.g., nutrient cycling) processes. Paradoxically, our study shows that taking a reductionist approach of viewing resources through a biochemical lens can lead to holistic insights of consumer spatial ecology.
The Editorial Board of Oecologia awarded this paper the 2021 Hanski Prize for best student-authored paper in animal ecology.