Fallback foods of temperate-living primates: A case study on snub-nosed monkeys

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Abstract

Only a few primate species thrive in temperate regions characterized by relatively low temperature, low rainfall, low species diversity, high elevation, and especially an extended season of food scarcity during which they suffer from dietary stress. We present data of a case study of dietary strategies and fallback foods in snub-nosed monkeys (Rhinopithecus bieti) in the Samage Forest, Northwest Yunnan, PRC. The snub-nosed monkeys adjusted intake of plant food items corresponding with changes in the phenology of deciduous trees in the forest and specifically showed a strong preference for young leaves in spring. A non-plant food, lichens (Parmeliaceae), featured prominently in the diet throughout the year (annual representation in the diet was about 67%) and became the dominant food item in winter when palatable plant resources were scarce. Additional highly sought winter foods were frost-resistant fruits and winter buds of deciduous hardwoods. The snub-nosed monkeys' choice of lichens as a staple fallback food is likely because of their spatiotemporal consistency in occurrence, nutritional and energetic properties, and the ease with which they can be harvested. Using lichens is a way to mediate effects of seasonal dearth in palatable plant foods and ultimately a key survival strategy. The snub-nosed monkeys' fallback strategy affects various aspects of their biology, e.g., two- and three-dimensional range use and social organization. The higher abundance of lichens at higher altitudes explains the monkeys' tendency to occupy relatively high altitudes in winter despite the prevailing cold. As to social organization, the wide temporal and spatial availability of lichens strongly reduces the ecological costs of grouping, thus allowing for the formation of “super-groups.” Usnea lichens, the snub-nosed monkeys' primary dietary component, are known to be highly susceptible to human-induced environmental changes such as air pollution, and a decline of this critical resource base could have devastating effects on the last remaining populations. Within the order Primates, lichenivory is a rare strategy and only found in a few species or populations inhabiting montane areas, i.e., Macaca sylvanus, Colobus angolensis, and Rhinopithecus roxellana. Other temperate-dwelling primates rely mainly on buds and bark as winter fallback foods. Am J Phys Anthropol 140:700–715, 2009. © 2009 Wiley-Liss, Inc.

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