The relationship of food intake and ingesta passage predicts feeding ecology in two different megaherbivore groups


  • Marcus Clauss,

  • W. Jürgen Streich,

  • Angela Schwarm,

  • Sylvia Ortmann,

  • Jürgen Hummel

M. Clauss (, Div. of Zoo Animals, Exotic Pets and Wildlife, Vetsuisse Faculty, Univ. of Zurich, Winterthurerstr. 260, CH-8057 Zurich, Switzerland.-W. J. Streich, A. Schwarm and S. Ortmann, Leibniz-Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW), Alfred-Kowalke-Str. 17, DE-10315 Berlin, Germany. – J. Hummel, Inst. of Animal Science, Animal Nutrition Group, Endenicher Allee 15, DE-53115 Bonn, Germany and Zoological Garden of Cologne, Riehler Str. 180, DE-50735 Köln, Germany.


Digestion, especially of plant material, is a time-dependent process. In herbivores, an increase in food intake is usually correlated to an acceleration of ingesta passage through the gut, and could hence depress digestive efficiency. Therefore, the nature of the relationship between food intake and ingesta passage (i.e. whether the increase in ingesta passage due to the increase in food intake is mild or drastic) should determine the flexibility of the feeding strategy of herbivore and omnivore species. Using two megaherbivore groups, the elephants and the hippopotamuses, as examples from opposing ends of the range of potential adaptations to this problem, we demonstrate that the species-specific relationship of food intake and ingesta passage can precisely predict feeding ecology and activity budgets. In hippos, the distinct acceleration in ingesta passage due to increased intake limits the additional energy gained from eating more forage, and explains the comparatively low food intake and short feeding times generally observed in these animals. In elephants, increased food intake only leads to a very moderate increase of ingesta passage, thus theoretically allowing to optimize energy gain by eating more, which is in accord with the high food intake and long feeding times observed in these animals. We suggest that the characterization of the intake-passage relationship in herbi- and omnivorous species is of much higher ecological relevance than the determination of a supposedly species-specific “passage time/mean retention time”.