The relative concentrations of nutrients and toxins dictate feeding by a vertebrate browser, the greater glider Petauroides volans

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Abstract

Although ecologists believe that vertebrate herbivores must select a diet that allows them to meet their nutritional requirements, while avoiding intoxication by plant secondary metabolites, this is remarkably difficult to show. A long series of field and laboratory experiments means that we have a good understanding of the factors that affect feeding by leaf-eating marsupials. This knowledge and the natural intraspecific variation in Eucalyptus chemistry allowed us to test the hypothesis that the feeding decisions of greater gliders (Petauroides volans) depend on the concentrations of available nitrogen (incorporating total nitrogen, dry matter digestibility and tannins) and of formylated phloroglucinol compounds (FPCs), potent antifeedants unique to Eucalyptus. We offered captive greater gliders foliage from two species of Eucalyptus, E . viminalisand E. melliodora, which vary naturally in their concentrations of available nitrogen and FPCs. We then measured the amount of foliage eaten by each glider and compared this with our laboratory analyses of foliar total nitrogen, available nitrogen and FPCs for each tree offered. The concentration of FPCs was the main factor that determined how much gliders ate of E. viminalis and E. melliodora, but in gliders fed E. viminalis the concentration of available nitrogen was also a significant influence. In other words, greater gliders ate E. viminalis leaves with a particular combination of FPCs and available nitrogen that maximised the nutritional gain but minimised their ingestion of toxins. In contrast, the concentration of total nitrogen was not correlated with feeding. This study is among the first to empirically show that browsing herbivores select a diet that balances the potential gain (available nutrients) and the potential costs (plant secondary chemicals) of eating leaves. The major implication of the study is that it is essential to identify the limiting nutrients and relevant toxins in a system in order to understand feeding behaviour.

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Jensen, L. M., Wallis, I. R., & Foley, W. J. (2015). The relative concentrations of nutrients and toxins dictate feeding by a vertebrate browser, the greater glider Petauroides volans. PLoS ONE, 10(5). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0121584

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