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  1. Free, publicly-accessible full text available September 22, 2023
  2. Amidst global shifts in the distribution and abundance of wildlife and livestock, we have only a rudimentary understanding of ungulate parasite communities and parasite-sharing patterns. We used qPCR and DNA metabarcoding of fecal samples to characterize gastrointestinal nematode (Strongylida) community composition and sharing among 17 sympatric species of wild and domestic large mammalian herbivore in central Kenya. We tested a suite of hypothesis-driven predictions about the role of host traits and phylogenetic relatedness in describing parasite infections. Host species identity explained 27–53% of individual variation in parasite prevalence, richness, community composition and phylogenetic diversity. Host and parasite phylogenies were congruent, host gut morphology predicted parasite community composition and prevalence, and hosts with low evolutionary distinctiveness were centrally positioned in the parasite-sharing network. We found no evidence that host body size, social-group size or feeding height were correlated with parasite composition. Our results highlight the interwoven evolutionary and ecological histories of large herbivores and their gastrointestinal nematodes and suggest that host identity, phylogeny and gut architecture—a phylogenetically conserved trait related to parasite habitat—are the overriding influences on parasite communities. These findings have implications for wildlife management and conservation as wild herbivores are increasingly replaced by livestock.
    Free, publicly-accessible full text available May 11, 2023
  3. Chase, Jonathan (Ed.)
    Diet composition is among the most important yet least understood dimensions of animal ecology. Inspired by the study of species abundance distributions (SADs), we tested for generalities in the structure of vertebrate diets by characterising them as dietary abundance distributions (DADs). We compiled data on 1167 population- level diets, representing >500 species from six vertebrate classes, spanning all con- tinents and oceans. DADs near-universally (92.5%) followed a hollow-curve shape, with scant support for other plausible rank-abundance-distribution shapes. This strong generality is inherently related to, yet incompletely explained by, the SADs of available food taxa. By quantifying dietary generalisation as the half-saturation point of the cumulative distribution of dietary abundance (sp50, minimum number of foods required to account for 50% of diet), we found that vertebrate populations are surprisingly specialised: in most populations, fewer than three foods accounted for at least half the diet. Variation in sp50 was strongly associated with consumer type, with carnivores being more specialised than herbivores or omnivores. Other methodological (sampling method and effort, taxonomic resolution), biological (body mass, frugivory) and biogeographic (latitude) factors influenced sp50 to varying degrees. Future challenges include identifying the mechanisms underpin- ning the hollow-curve DAD, its generality beyond vertebrates, and the biologicalmore »determinants of dietary generalisation.« less
  4. Acvedo, Miguel (Ed.)
    Camera traps (CTs) are a valuable tool in ecological research, amassing large quantities of information on the behaviour of diverse wildlife communities. CTs are predominantly used as passive data loggers to gather observational data for correlational analyses. Integrating CTs into experimental studies, however, can enable rigorous testing of key hypotheses in animal behaviour and conservation biology that are otherwise difficult or impossible to evaluate. We developed the 'BoomBox', an open-source Arduino-compatible board that attaches to commercially available CTs to form an Automated Behavioural Response (ABR) system. The modular unit connects directly to the CT’s passive infrared (PIR) motion sensor, playing audio files over external speakers when the sensor is triggered. This creates a remote playback system that captures animal responses to specific cues, combining the benefits of camera trapping (e.g. continuous monitoring in remote locations, lack of human observers, large data volume) with the power of experimental manipulations (e.g. controlled perturbations for strong mechanistic inference). Our system builds on previous ABR designs to provide a cheap (~100USD) and customizable field tool. We provide a practical guide detailing how to build and operate the BoomBox ABR system with suggestions for potential experimental designs that address a variety of questions in wildlifemore »ecology. As proof-of-concept, we successfully field tested the BoomBox in two distinct field settings to study species interactions (predator–prey and predator–predator) and wildlife responses to conservation interventions. This new tool allows researchers to conduct a unique suite of manipulative experiments on free-living species in complex environments, enhancing the ability to identify mechanistic drivers of species' behaviours and interactions in natural systems.« less
  5. Austin, A (Ed.)
    Sympatric large mammalian herbivore species differ in diet composition, both by eating different parts of the same plant and by eating different plant species. Various theories proposed to explain these differences are not mutually exclusive, but are difficult to reconcile and confront with data. Moreover, whereas several of these ideas were originally developed with reference to within-plant partitioning (i.e., consumption of different tissues), they may analogously apply to partitioning of plant species; this possibility has received little attention. Plant functional traits provide a novel window into herbivore diets and a means of testing multiple hypotheses in a unified framework. We used DNA metabarcoding to characterize the diets of 14 sympatric large-herbivore species in an African savanna and analyzed diet composition in light of 27 functional traits that we measured locally for 204 plant species. Plant traits associated with the deep phylogenetic split between grasses and eudicots formed the primary axis of resource partitioning, affirming the generality and importance of the grazer-browser spectrum. A secondary axis comprised plant traits relevant to herbivore body size. Plant taxa in the diets of large-bodied species were lower on average in digestible energy and protein, taller on average (especially among grazers), and tended to bemore »higher in tensile strength, zinc, stem-specific density, and potassium (and lower in sodium, stem dry matter content, and copper). These results are consistent with longstanding hypotheses linking body size with forage quality and height, yet they also suggest the existence of undiscovered links between herbivore body size and a set of rarely considered food-plant traits. We also tested the novel hypothesis that the leaf economic spectrum (LES), a major focus in plant ecology, is an axis of resource partitioning in large-herbivore assemblages; we found that the LES was a minor axis of individual variation within a few species, but had little effect on interspecific dietary differentiation. Synthesis. These results identify key plant traits that underpin the partitioning of food-plant species in large-herbivore communities and suggest that accounting for multiple plant traits (and tradeoffs among them) will enable a deeper understanding of herbivore-plant interaction networks.« less
  6. Understanding the evolutionary consequences of wildlife exploitation is increasingly important as harvesting becomes more efficient. We examined the impacts of ivory poaching during the Mozambican Civil War (1977 to 1992) on the evolution of African savanna elephants ( Loxodonta africana ) in Gorongosa National Park. Poaching resulted in strong selection that favored tusklessness amid a rapid population decline. Survey data revealed tusk-inheritance patterns consistent with an X chromosome–linked dominant, male-lethal trait. Whole-genome scans implicated two candidate genes with known roles in mammalian tooth development ( AMELX and MEP1a ), including the formation of enamel, dentin, cementum, and the periodontium. One of these loci ( AMELX ) is associated with an X-linked dominant, male-lethal syndrome in humans that diminishes the growth of maxillary lateral incisors (homologous to elephant tusks). This study provides evidence for rapid, poaching-mediated selection for the loss of a prominent anatomical trait in a keystone species.
  7. Ecological niche differences are necessary for stable species coexistence but are often difficult to discern. Models of dietary niche differentiation in large mammalian herbivores invoke the quality, quantity, and spatiotemporal distribution of plant tissues and growth forms but are agnostic toward food plant species identity. Empirical support for these models is variable, suggesting that additional mechanisms of resource partitioning may be important in sustaining large-herbivore diversity in African savannas. We used DNA metabarcoding to conduct a taxonomically explicit analysis of large-herbivore diets across southeastern Africa, analyzing ∼4,000 fecal samples of 30 species from 10 sites in seven countries over 6 y. We detected 893 food plant taxa from 124 families, but just two families—grasses and legumes—accounted for the majority of herbivore diets. Nonetheless, herbivore species almost invariably partitioned food plant taxa; diet composition differed significantly in 97% of pairwise comparisons between sympatric species, and dissimilarity was pronounced even between the strictest grazers (grass eaters), strictest browsers (nongrass eaters), and closest relatives at each site. Niche differentiation was weakest in an ecosystem recovering from catastrophic defaunation, indicating that food plant partitioning is driven by species interactions, and was stronger at low rainfall, as expected if interspecific competition is a predominant driver.more »Diets differed more between browsers than grazers, which predictably shaped community organization: Grazer-dominated trophic networks had higher nestedness and lower modularity. That dietary differentiation is structured along taxonomic lines complements prior work on how herbivores partition plant parts and patches and suggests that common mechanisms govern herbivore coexistence and community assembly in savannas.« less
    Free, publicly-accessible full text available August 30, 2023
  8. Novotny, Vojtech (Ed.)