Individual variation of isotopic niches in grazing and browsing desert ungulates.Oecologia 2015; 179(1):75-88O
Ungulates often adjust their diet when food availability varies over time. However, it is poorly understood when and to what extent individuals change their diet and, if they do so, if all individuals of a population occupy distinct or similar dietary niches. In the arid Namibian Kunene Region, we studied temporal variations of individual niches in grazing gemsbok (Oryx gazella gazella) and predominantly browsing springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis). We used variation in stable C and N isotope ratios of tail hair increments as proxies to estimate individual isotopic dietary niches and their temporal plasticity. Isotopic dietary niches of populations of the two species were mutually exclusive, but similar in breadth. Isotopic niche breadth of gemsbok was better explained by within-individual variation than by between-individual variation of stable isotope ratios, indicating that gemsbok individuals were facultative specialists in using isotopically distinct local food resources. In contrast, inter- and intra-individual variations contributed similarly to the isotopic niche breadth of the springbok population, suggesting a higher degree of individual isotopic segregation in a more generalist ungulate. In both species, between-individual variation was neither explained by changes in plant primary productivity, sex, geographical position nor by group size. Within species, individual dietary niches overlapped partially, suggesting that both populations included individuals with distinct isotopic dietary niches. Our study provides the first evidence for isotopic dietary niche segregation in individuals of two distinct desert ungulates. Similar, yet isotopically distinct dietary niches of individuals may facilitate partitioning of food resources and thus individual survival in desert ecosystems.