Aim Classic island biogeographical theory predicts that reserves have to be large to conserve high biodiversity. Recent literature, however, suggests that habitat heterogeneity can counterbalance the effect of small reserve size. For savanna ungulates, body mass is said to drive habitat selection and facilitate species coexistence, where large species use a higher proportion of the landscape than smaller species, because a wider food quality tolerance allows them to use a higher diversity of habitat types. In this case, high habitat heterogeneity would facilitate diverse assemblages of different-sized ungulates. Digestive physiology should further modify this relationship, because non-ruminants have a wider diet tolerance than ruminants. We tested this hypothesis with an empirical dataset on distribution and habitat preference of different-sized African grazers.
Location Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, Republic of South Africa.
Methods We recorded herbivore dung and habitat type on 24 line transects varying between 4 and 11 km with a total length of 190 km to determine habitat selection and landscape distribution of six grazer species, three ruminants and three non-ruminants.
Results Larger ruminant grazers were more evenly distributed than smaller ruminants, had a more diverse use of habitats and used more low quality habitat. In contrast, non-ruminant grazers were more evenly distributed than similar-sized ruminants and body mass did not clearly influence diversity of habitat use and use of low quality habitat.
Main conclusions We confirm that body mass influences diversity of habitat use of large herbivores but digestive strategy potentially modifies this relationship. Hence, habitat heterogeneity might facilitate herbivore diversity in savanna ecosystems and high heterogeneity might counterbalance the effects of fragmentation and declining reserve size. Concluding, processes that homogenize the landscape, such as fire (mis)management and artificial waterholes, might be as threatening to biodiversity as landscape fragmentation, especially for smaller ruminant herbivores.