9. Balluffi-Fry, J., Leroux, S.J., Wiersma, Y.F., Richmond, I.C., Heckford, T.H., Rizzuto, M., Kennah, J.L., Vander Wal, E. (2021) Integrating plant stoichiometry and feeding experiments: state-dependent forage choice and its implications on body mass. Oecologia.


Intraspecific feeding choices comprise a large portion of herbivore foraging decisions. Plant resource quality is heterogeneously distributed, affected by nutrient availability and growing conditions. Herbivores navigate landscapes, foraging not only according to food qualities, but also energetic and nutritional demands. We test three non-exclusive foraging hypotheses using the snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus): (1) herbivore feeding choices and body conditions respond to intraspecific plant quality variation; (2) high energetic demands mitigate feeding responses; and (3) feeding responses are inflated when nutritional demands are high. We measured black spruce (Picea mariana) nitrogen, phosphorus and terpene compositions, as indicators of quality, within a snowshoe hare trapping grid and found plant growing conditions to explain spruce quality variation (R2  <  0.36). We then offered two qualities of spruce (H1) from the trapping grid to hares in cafeteria-style experiments and measured their feeding and body condition responses (n = 75). We proxied energetic demands (H2) with ambient temperature and coat insulation (% white coat) and nutritional demands (H3) with the spruce quality (nitrogen and phosphorus content) in home ranges. Hares with the strongest preference for high-quality spruce lost on average 2.2% less weight than hares who ate the least high-quality spruce relative to low-quality spruce. The results supported our energetic predictions as follows: hares in colder temperatures and with less-insulative coats (lower % white) consumed more spruce and were less selective towards high-quality spruce. Collectively, we found variation in plant growing conditions within herbivore home ranges substantial enough to affect herbivore body conditions, but energetic stats mediate plant–herbivore interactions.

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