Rangeland Herbivores Learn to Forage in a World Where the Only Constant is Change
AffiliationNatural Resources & the Environment, School of
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AbstractWhen we go to the grocery store it is a fairly easy task to select and purchase nutritious meals. A readily available, predictable food supply is conveniently organized and displayed in the aisles. The nutritional composition of most foods is clearly labeled so you can immediately know what nutrients (and perhaps, toxins) you will be consuming. In contrast, rangeland animals live in a world where nutrients and toxins are constantly changing across space and time. For example, there may be 10s to 100s of plant species growing on a single acre, and each plant can differ widely in the kinds and amounts of nutrients and toxins it offers to free-ranging herbivores. Even at the level of the individual plant, plant parts vary in their concentration of nutrients and toxins; leaves, stems, and flowers, all differ in the kinds and amounts of nutrients and toxins they contain. Nutrient and toxin content of the same plant species can also vary depending on where it grows (in the sun vs. shade, on a wet vs. dry site, on a fertile vs. infertile site, etc.). Mother Nature can also drastically alter foraging environments as a result of natural disasters like floods, fires, or droughts. Wild animals may find themselves in unfamiliar environments during their natural migration patterns. Range and wildlife management practices can also place wild and domestic herbivores in unfamiliar environments via relocation and reintroduction programs or via grazing management practices. Despite all these challenges, rangeland herbivores are remarkably adept at selecting plants that meet their nutritional needs while largely avoiding plants that do not. The fact that animals preferentially select plant species that are more nutritious than what is available, on average, is strong evidence that animals are able to somehow detect nutrient and toxin levels in plants as they change across space and time. In this paper, we examine recent important discoveries that underscore the importance of learning as a critical mechanism which allows rangeland herbivores to survive in a world where the only constant is change (Provenza, 2003; www.behave.net).
Series/Report no.University of Arizona Cooperative Extension Publication AZ1518
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