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Habitat selection according to the ability of animals to eat, digest and detoxify foods

  • Alan J. Duncan (a1) and Iain J. Gordon (a1)


Large herbivores play a major role in shaping vegetation community dynamics through selective consumption of particular plants and plant communities. An understanding of the factors influencing diet selection at the level of individual bites (‘bite scale’) is important for prediction of the impact of herbivores on vegetation at the habitat scale. Bite-scale diet selection represents an integration of the twin goals of maximizing nutrient intake and minimizing toxin intake. Recent research with ruminants in pen-fed situations has shown that animals are able to make choices between artificial foods that maximize growth and other production variables. The role of post-ingestive feedback as an important mechanism for allowing animals to assess the nutritional quality of particular foods, and so select optimal diets, has been recognized in a number of recent experiments. Our understanding of the role of toxin intake minimization in diet selection decisions is more rudimentary. An important advance in the last decade has been the acknowledgement of the role of post-ingestive feedback and learning as a mechanism for avoidance of dietary toxicity. Further research is required to assess the importance of these processes in relation to free-grazing animals. The extent to which an understanding of bite-scale diet selection can be used to predict habitat utilization is not well understood. At the habitat scale additional factors such as predator avoidance, social constraints, avoidance of parasitism and microclimatic effects have an important influence on foraging decisions. Future research needs to focus on developing a quantitative understanding of such decisions at the habitat scale.

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Corresponding author

*Corresponding Author: Dr Alan J. Duncan, fax +44 (0)1224 311556, email


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