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Keywords:

  • foraging;
  • herbivory;
  • palatability indices;
  • sexual segregation;
  • variation partitioning

Abstract

Understanding the dietary consumption and selection of wild populations of generalist herbivores is hampered by the complex array of factors. Here, we determine the influence of habitat, season, and animal density, sex, and age on the diet consumption and selection of 426 red deer (Cervus elaphus scoticus) culled in Fiordland National Park, New Zealand. Our site differs from studies elsewhere both in habitat (evergreen angiosperm-dominated forests) and the intensity of hunting pressures. We predicted that deer would not consume forage in proportion to its relative availability, and that dietary consumption would change among and within years in response to hunting pressures that would also limit opportunities for age and sex segregation. Using canonical correspondence analysis, we evaluated the relative importance of different drivers of variation in diet consumption assessed from gut content and related these to available forage in the environment. We found that altitude explained the largest proportion of variation in diet consumption, reflecting the ability of deer to alter their consumption and selection in relation to their foraging grounds. Grasses formed a high proportion of the diet consumption, even for deer culled several kilometres from the alpine grasslands. In the winter months, when the alpine grasslands were largely inaccessible, less grass was eaten and deer resorted to woody plants that were avoided in the summer months. Surprisingly, there were no significant dietary differences between adults and juveniles and only subtle differences between the sexes. Sex-based differences in diet consumption are commonly observed in ungulate species and we suggest that they may have been reduced in our study area owing to decreased heterogeneity in available forage as the diversity of palatable species decreased under high deer browsing pressures, or by intense hunting pressure.