• dietary niche;
  • feeding behaviour;
  • grazing;
  • large herbivores;
  • Equus quagga;
  • Hippotragus niger;
  • rarity


Animals that are relatively rare in local species assemblages are commonly assumed to be narrowly selective in their habitat or dietary requirements, with the latter generally assessed in terms of the range of food types consumed. We investigated whether a narrow dietary range might help explain the restricted distribution and low local densities attained by sable antelope Hippotragus niger compared with other grazing ungulates. Selection by sable antelope for grass species, its relation to species availability and the resulting evenness of the diet were compared with these measures for zebra Equus quagga, which are assumed to be generalist feeders owing to their hindgut fermentation system, under dry season conditions when food was most limiting. Both grazers exhibited a clear distinction between highly favoured and infrequently accepted or rejected grass species in the same region, and both favoured mostly the same common grass species, but sable showed greater acceptance of several less common grass species than did zebra. Distinctions were evident among individual sable herds in favoured grass species, dependent on local availability. Dietary evenness was similar for sable and zebra herds overall, although seasonal trends differed depending on whether animals concentrated their diet more narrowly on a few grass species or broadened it during more extremely dry conditions. Hence, although sable were more narrowly selective for green leaf content than zebra, the dietary acceptance range of these two grazers at grass species level did not differ fundamentally. In particular, sable readily consumed tall grass species rated as having low to moderate forage value. This dietary tolerance enables sable antelope to occupy savannah woodlands associated with relatively infertile soils where the risk of predation is reduced due to the relatively low abundance of other prey. Accordingly, the causes of local rarity may lie in the restricted availability of food in the places to which these species are restricted by other factors.