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Consumption of a focal plant by herbivores depends, not only on the physical and chemical characteristics of that plant, but also on the characteristics of the neighbouring vegetation. Consumption of focal plants has been related to their own characteristics and to the quality of the neighbouring vegetation, but the two have not been combined to examine the relative importance of focal plant and neighbouring vegetation characteristics.

We conducted a series of feeding trials to examine the relative importance of focal plant and various characteristics of neighbouring vegetation to browsing of a focal plant within vegetation patches. We planted Eucalyptus nitens seedlings of high and low nutrient status amongst vegetation patches differing in palatability, abundance and height. Generalist mammalian herbivores, red-bellied pademelons (Thylogale billardierii), were allowed to feed in each of these patches one at a time, and seedling consumption was recorded. Results were considered in light of the attractant-decoy and apparency hypotheses, which focus on the outcome to plants, and in terms of foraging theory, which is process-focussed.

Seedling and vegetation characteristics were both important. Seedlings of high nutrient status were preferred over those of low nutrient status. The relative quality, abundance and height of neighbouring vegetation all influenced browsing of a focal plant. Seedlings were more vulnerable amongst vegetation that was of low palatability, of low abundance, or was short. Seedling and vegetation effects were additive in two of three trials.

Results were consistent with both the attractant-decoy and apparency hypotheses, and could be explained in terms of maximising foraging efficiency. They demonstrate the need to consider characteristics of both the focal plant and its neighbouring vegetation when predicting the vulnerability of the former to browsing by generalist herbivores.