Dietary plasticity of generalist and specialist ungulates in the Namibian Desert: A Stable Isotopes Approach

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Desert ungulates live in adverse ecosystems that are particularly sensitive to degradation and global climate change. Here, we asked how two ungulate species with contrasting feeding habits, grazing gemsbok (Oryx g. gazella) and browsing springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis), respond to an increase in food availability during a pronounced rain period. We used a stable isotope approach to delineate the feeding habits of these two ungulates in the arid Kunene Region of Namibia. Our nineteen months field investigation included two time periods of drought when food availability for ungulates was lowest and an intermediate period with extreme, unusual rainfalls. We documented thirteen isotopically distinct food sources in the isotopic space of the study area. Our results indicated a relatively high dietary plasticity of gemsbok, which fed on a mixture of plants, including more than 30% of C3 plants during drought periods, but almost exclusively on C4 and CAM plant types when food was plentiful. During drought periods, the inferred gemsbok diets also consisted of up to 25% of Euphorbia damarana; an endemic CAM plant that is rich in toxic secondary plant compounds. In contrast, springbok were generalists, feeding on a higher proportion of C3 than C4/CAM plants, irrespective of environmental conditions. Our results illustrate two dietary strategies in gemsbok and springbok which enable them to survive and coexist in the hostile Kunene arid ecosystem.

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Plos ONE

Item Type:
Journal Article

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