The Use of Polyethylene Glycol in Mammalian Herbivore Diet Studies: What Are We Measuring?

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Polyethylene glycol (PEG) has been used to study the intake and digestion of tannin-rich plants by mammalian herbivores because it preferentially binds to tannins. However, it is not clear whether the responses of herbivores to dietary PEG is due to increased protein availability from the release of tannin-bound protein, amelioration of tannin effects, or whether PEG also may bind to other compounds and change their activity in the gut. We used three native New Zealand tree species to measure the effect of PEG on the amount of foliage eaten by invasive common brushtail possums (Trichosurus vulpecula) and on in vitro digestible nitrogen (available N). The addition of PEG increased the in vitro available N content of Weinmannia racemosa foliage, and possums ate significantly more PEG-treated foliage than untreated foliage. However, possums also ate more PEG-treated Fuchsia excorticata foliage, even though PEG did not increase in vitro available N in this species. Possums ate very little Melicytus ramiflorus, regardless of PEG treatment, even though M. ramiflorus contained the highest concentration of in vitro available N. These results prompted us to use PEG and a protein supplement, casein, to manipulate the available N concentration of diets containing ground eucalypt foliage, a well-studied food species for possums. Again, the response of possums to PEG was independent of changes in in vitro available N. In addition, altering the protein content of the diet via the addition of casein did not affect how much food the possums consumed. We conclude that the effects of PEG on dry matter intake by mammalian herbivores are not due solely to the release of tannin-bound protein. There is need for a better understanding of PEG-tannin interactions in order to ensure that the use of PEG in nutritional studies does not outstrip an understanding of its mechanisms of action.




Windley, H. R., Wigley, H. J., Ruscoe, W. A., Foley, W. J., & Marsh, K. J. (2016). The Use of Polyethylene Glycol in Mammalian Herbivore Diet Studies: What Are We Measuring? Journal of Chemical Ecology, 42(6), 523–532.

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