Optimal diet choice for large herbivores: an extended contingency model

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Abstract

1. A more general contingency model of optimal diet choice is developed, allowing for simultaneous searching and handling, which extends the theory to include grazing and browsing by large herbivores.

2. Foraging resolves into three modes: purely encounter-limited, purely handling-limited and mixed-process, in which either a handling-limited prey type is added to an encounter-limited diet, or the diet becomes handling-limited as it expands.

3. The purely encounter-limited diet is, in general, broader than that predicted by the conventional contingency model.

4. As the degree of simultaneity of searching and handling increases, the optimal diet expands to the point where it is handling-limited, at which point all inferior prey types are rejected.

5. Inclusion of a less profitable prey species is not necessarily independent of its encounter rate and the zero-one rule does not necessarily hold: some of the less profitable prey may be included in the optimal diet. This gives an optimal foraging explanation for herbivores’ mixed diets.

6. Rules are shown for calculating the boundary between encounter-limited and handling-limited diets and for predicting the proportion of inferior prey to be included in a two-species diet.

7. The digestive rate model is modified to include simultaneous searching and handling, showing that the more they overlap, the more the predicted diet-breadth is likely to be reduced.

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