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Integrating the costs of plant toxins and predation risk in foraging decisions of a mammalian herbivore

Kirmani, Sahar N., Banks, Peter B., McArthur, Clare
Oecologia 2010 v.164 no.2 pp. 349-356
Eucalyptus, Strigiformes, Trichosurus vulpecula, cineole, field experimentation, food plants, foods, foraging, freshness, herbivores, nutrient requirements, opossums, pellets, phytotoxins, predation, predators, risk perception, woodlands, Australia
Foraging herbivores must satisfy their nutrient requirements in a world of toxic plants while also avoiding predators. Plant toxins and perceived predation risk at food patches should both reduce patch residency time, but the relative strengths of these factors on feeding decisions has rarely been quantified. Using an arboreal generalist herbivore, the common brushtail possum Trichosurus vulpecula, we tested the effects on food intake of the plant toxin, cineole, and regurgitated pellets from one of its predators, the powerful owl Ninox strenua at the small spatial scale of the food patch. We used the giving-up density (GUD) framework, with animals harvesting food items (sultanas) in an inedible matrix (small pebbles). We ran two consecutive field experiments in a eucalypt woodland in eastern Australia, 1 month apart in the same location. In experiment 1, there was a significant interaction between cineole [at 17% of dry matter (DM)] and owl pellets. The GUD was lowest in the absence of both cineole and owl pellet, intermediate in the presence of owl pellet; and highest with cineole ± owl pellet. The effect of owl pellet diminished over time. In experiment 2, only cineole (at 10% DM) increased the GUD significantly. The difference in effect of owl pellet was probably due to both habituation and freshness of the cue. Our study demonstrates the importance of synthesising predator-prey and plant-herbivore ecology to better understand the complex set of constraints influencing foraging herbivores. The greater effect of toxin than fear on possums is likely to be due to its high, but ecologically relevant concentration. This highlights the need to explore the relative and net impacts of a range of concentrations of plant toxins and predation risks.