The digestive performance of mammalian herbivores: why big may not be that much better

Authors

  • MARCUS CLAUSS,

    Corresponding author
    1. Institute of Animal Physiology, Physiological Chemistry and Animal Nutrition, Schönleutnerstr. 8, 85764 Oberschleissheim, Germany,
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  • JÜRGEN HUMMEL

    1. Institute of Animal Physiology, Physiological Chemistry and Animal Nutrition, Schönleutnerstr. 8, 85764 Oberschleissheim, Germany,
    2. Zoological Garden of Cologne, Riehler Str. 173, 50735 Cologne, Germany
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  • Editor: RM

M. Clauss. E-mail: clauss@tiph.vetmed.uni-muenchen.de

ABSTRACT

1. A traditional approach to the nutritional ecology of herbivores is that larger animals can tolerate a diet of lesser quality due to a higher digestive efficiency bestowed on them by comparatively long ingesta retention times and lower relative energy requirements.

2. There are important physiological disadvantages that larger animals must compensate for, namely a lower gut surface : gut volume ratio, larger ingesta particle size and greater losses of faecal bacterial material due to more fermentation. Compensating adaptations could include an increased surface enlargement in larger animals, increased absorption rates per unit of gut surface, and increased gut motility to enhance mixing of ingesta.

3. A lower surface : volume ratio, particularly in sacciform forestomach structures, could be a reason for the fact that methane production is of significant scope mainly in large herbivores and not in small herbivores with comparably long retention times; in the latter, the substrate for methanogenesis – the volatile fatty acids – could be absorbed faster due to a more favourable gut surface : volume ratio.

4. Existing data suggest that in herbivores, an increase in fibre digestibility is not necessarily accompanied by an increase in overall apparent dry matter digestibility. This indicates a comparative decrease of the apparent digestibility of non-fibre material, either due to a lesser utilization of non-fibre substrate or an increased loss of endogenous/bacterial substance. Quantitative research on these mechanisms is warranted in order to evaluate whether an increase in body size represents a net increase of digestive efficiency or just a shift of digestive focus.

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