Spatial Distributions of Multiple Plant Species Affect Herbivore Foraging Selectivity

Oikos, Volume 119, Issue 2, Date: February 2010, Pages: 401-408

Ling Wang, Deli Wang, Yuguang Bai, Guitong Jiang, Jushan Liu, Yue Huang, and Yexing Li

“Spatial distribution of food resources is an important factor determining herbivore foraging. Previous studies have demonstrated that clumped distribution of preferred species increases its consumption by herbivores in single- or two-species systems. However, the potential impact of distribution pattern of less preferred species on foraging was ignored. In natural grasslands with high species diversity and complexity, the spatial distribution of preferred species impacts on herbivore foraging may be strongly correlated with the distribution of less preferred species.

“Our aims were to determine the effect of distribution of both preferred and other plant species on herbivore foraging under conditions close to a native, multi-species foraging environment, and conceptualize the relationships between spatial distribution of food resources and herbivore consumption. We hypothesized that random distribution of non-preferred species reduces herbivore consumption of preferred species because the dispersion of less preferred species likely disturbs herbivore foraging. We conducted an experiment using three species with five combinations of clumped and random distribution patterns. Three species Lathyrus quinquenervius, Phragmites australis and Leymus chinensis, were of high, intermediate and low preferences by sheep, respectively. Results showed that distribution of low preferred species, but not that of high preferred one, affected the consumption of preferred species. Sheep obtained higher consumption of high preferred species when low preferred species followed a clumped distribution than a random distribution. Distance between aggregations of high and low preferred species did not affect sheep foraging. It was concluded that the effects of spatial distribution of preferred species on its consumption are dependent on herbivore foraging strategy, and sheep can consume more preferred species when there is a consistent spatial pattern between preferred species and the entire food resource, and that the random dispersion of low preferred species in grassland may reduce herbivore consumption of high preferred species, thus minimizing selective grazing.”