The reliability of palatability estimates obtained from rumen contents analysis and a field-based index of diet selection


  • Editor: Virginia Hayssen

David A. Coomes, Forest Conservation and Ecology Group, Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB2 3EA, UK. Tel: +01223 333911; Fax: +01223 333593


Understanding herbivore foraging behaviour is often limited by not knowing the palatability of food items. Electivity indices can overcome this challenge by relating the consumption of food items to their relative abundance in the environment. We compare eight widely used electivity indices to relate the level of consumption of 48 food items in the rumen contents of 402 red deer Cervus elaphus in New Zealand to the environmental availability of food items. Additionally, we derive a field-based index of palatability from observed browse damage recorded during vegetation surveys at our site. Electivity indices were positively correlated with each other and with the browse survey index, which was also positively correlated with electivity indices from other studies. Thus, the choice of electivity index is unimportant when making comparisons of relative palatability among food items. Our analyses suggest that quantitative measures of palatability may be reliably inferred from observed browse damage in the field, which is quicker and less destructive to estimate than electivity indices. As a result, we demonstrate a useful technique for predicting herbivore diet selection.