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Stable isotope turnover and variability in tail hairs of captive and free-ranging African elephants (Loxodonta africana) reveal dietary niche differences within populations

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Abstract:

Many herbivore species expand their dietary niche breadths by switching from browse-rich diets in dry seasons to grass-rich diets in rainy seasons, in response to phenological changes in plant availability and quality. We analyzed stable isotope series along tail hairs of captive and free-ranging African elephant (Loxodonta africana (Blumenbach, 1797)) to compare patterns of seasonal dietary variability across individuals. Results from elephants translocated from the wild into captivity, where their diets are semicontrolled, revealed tail hair growth rates of ∼0.34 mm/day, on average, and relatively rapid isotope turnover through the transition from wild into captivity. Sampling hairs at 10 mm increments thus archives dietary chronologies at a resolution suitable for tracking diet switches at seasonal, and even subseasonal, scales. Hairs of free-ranging elephants showed extensive carbon isotopic variability within individuals, consistent with seasonal switches between C3-browsing and C4-grazing. Similarly extensive, but asynchronous, shifts in nitrogen isotope ratios were also observed, suggesting an influence of factors other than seasonality. Across individuals, switching patterns differed across habitats, and across age classes, with older, larger animals including increasing amounts of C3 browse into their diets. These results demonstrate how stable isotope approaches characterize complex patterns of resource use in wildlife populations.

Keywords: African elephant; C3 browse; C4 grass; Kruger Park; Loxodonta africana; brout de plantes C3; changement d’alimentation; diet switching; graminées C4; parc Kruger; saisonnalité; seasonality; sevrage; weaning; éléphant d’Afrique

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1139/cjz-2012-0155

Affiliations: 1: School of Life Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Private Bag X01, Scottsville, 3209, RSA; Institute of Systems Science, Durban University of Technology, Durban, South Africa; Department of Archaeology, University of Cape Town, Private Bag, Rondebosch, 7701, RSA. 2: School of Life Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Private Bag X01, Scottsville, 3209, RSA. 3: Institute of Systems Science, Durban University of Technology, Durban, South Africa. 4: Department of Anthropology, University of Colorado at Boulder, Boulder, CO 80309, USA. 5: Research Laboratory for Archaeology, University of Oxford, South Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3QY, UK. 6: Department of Production Animal Studies, Faculty of Veterinary Science, University of Pretoria, Onderstepoort, 0110, RSA; Mammal Research Institute, Department of Zoology and Entomology, University of Pretoria, Pretoria, 0002, RSA. 7: Clinic for Zoo Animals, Exotic Pets and Wildlife, Vetsuisse Faculty, University of Zürich, Winterthurerstrasse 260, CH-8057 Zürich, Switzerland. 8: School of Life Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Private Bag X01, Scottsville, 3209, RSA; Florisbad Quaternary Research, National Museum, P.O. Box 266, Bloemfontein, 9300, RSA; Department of Anthropology, University of Colorado at Boulder, Boulder, CO 80309, USA; Clinic for Zoo Animals, Exotic Pets and Wildlife, Vetsuisse Faculty, University of Zürich, Winterthurerstrasse 260, CH-8057 Zürich, Switzerland.

Publication date: January 1, 2013

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  • Published since 1929, this monthly journal reports on primary research contributed by respected international scientists in the broad field of zoology, including behaviour, biochemistry and physiology, developmental biology, ecology, genetics, morphology and ultrastructure, parasitology and pathology, and systematics and evolution. It also invites experts to submit review articles on topics of current interest.
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