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The influence of bite size on foraging at larger spatial and temporal scales by mammalian herbivores


  • Lisa A. Shipley

L. A. Shipley (, Dept of Natural Resource Sciences, Washington State Univ., Pullman, WA 99164-6410, USA.


Organisms respond to their heterogeneous environment in complex ways at many temporal and spatial scales. Here, I examine how the smallest scale process in foraging by mammalian herbivores, taking a bite, influences plants and herbivores over larger scales. First, because cropping bites competes with chewing them, bite size influences short-term intake rate of herbivores within plant patches. On the other hand, herbivores can chew bites while searching for new ones, thus influencing the time spent vigilant and intake rate as animals move among food patches. Therefore, bite size affects how much time herbivores must spend foraging each day. Because acquiring energy is necessary for fitness, herbivores recognize the importance of bite size and select bites, patches and diets based on tradeoffs between harvesting rates, digestion, and sheering forces. In turn, induced structural defenses of plants, such as thorns, allow plants to respond immediately to herbivory by reducing bite size and thus tissue loss. Over evolutionary time, herbivores have adapted mouth morphology that allows them to maximize bite size on their primary forage plant, whereas plants faced with large mammalian herbivores have adapted structures such as divarication that minimize bite size and protect themselves from herbivory. Finally, bite size available among plant communities can drive habitat segregation and migration of larger herbivores across landscapes.