Convergence and divergence in prey of sympatric canids and felids: opportunism or phylogenetic constraint?
Since the canids and felids diverged in the mid-Eocene or earlier, each family has developed a suite of morphological and behavioural adaptations for obtaining and consuming prey. We here distinguish between prey taxa captured and eaten as a result of these phylogenetic adaptations, and those because they are fortuitously encountered, and argue that such supplementary prey, often opportunistically caught, create a buffer between sympatric, and potentially competitive, canids and felids and thus enhance coexistence. We base our analysis on dietary data derived from the stomach contents of four sympatric canid and felid species in the Free State Province, South Africa (canids: Cape fox Vulpes chama and black-backed jackal Canis mesomelas; felids: African wild cat Felis silvestris lybica and caracal Caracal caracal), and from results of studies on these species elsewhere in southern Africa. The two canid species preyed heavily on invertebrates, and thus opportunistically, while the felids (especially the caracal) concentrated on mammals, prey they are phylogenetically adapted to capture. Only three species of mammalian prey are shared by the four species. The ratio of opportunistically-to-phylogenetically mediated prey taxa used (the O/P ratio) differ between the species, with the black-backed jackal having the most opportunistically caught taxa in its diet, and the caracal the least. As predicted, a comparison of this data with those from dietary studies of the same species carried out elsewhere indicates that the number of opportunistically obtained prey taxa varies more than those resulting from phylogenetic adaptations. The largest canid had the widest food spectrum (35 prey taxa) while the smallest felid had the most restricted one (11 prey taxa). We argue that using the O/P distinction allows a better understanding of changes in food niche breadth of particular species, especially in xeric areas, and gives a better indication of possible exploitative competition for food by sympatric carnivores than when regarding all prey taxa as actively pursued. © 2004 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2004, 83, 527–538.