Bust economics: Foragers choose high quality habitats in lean times

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Abstract

In environments where food resources are spatially variable and temporarily impoverished, consumers that encounter habitat patches with different food density should focus their foraging initially where food density is highest before they move to patches where food density is lower. Increasing missed opportunity costs should drive individuals progressively to patches with lower food density as resources in the initially high food density patches deplete. To test these expectations, we assessed the foraging decisions of two species of dasyurid marsupials (dunnarts: Sminthopsis hirtipes and S. youngsoni) during a deep drought, or bust period, in the Simpson Desert of central Australia. Dunnarts were allowed access to three patches containing different food densities using an interview chamber experiment. Both species exhibited clear preference for the high density over the lower food density patches as measured in total harvested resources. Similarly, when measuring the proportion of resources harvested within the patches, we observed a marginal preference for patches with initially high densities. Models analyzing behavioral choices at the population level found no differences in behavior between the two species, but models analyzing choices at the individual level uncovered some variation. We conclude that dunnarts can distinguish between habitat patches with different densities of food and preferentially exploit the most valuable. As our observations were made during bust conditions, experiments should be repeated during boom times to assess the foraging economics of dunnarts when environmental resources are high.

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Bleicher, S. S., & Dickman, C. R. (2016). Bust economics: Foragers choose high quality habitats in lean times. PeerJ, 2016(1). https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.1609

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