A faecal index of diet quality that predicts reproductive success in a marsupial folivore
Windley, HR and Wallis, IR and DeGabriel, JL and Moore, BD and Johnson, CN and Foley, WJ, A faecal index of diet quality that predicts reproductive success in a marsupial folivore, Oecologia, 173, (1) pp. 203-212. ISSN 0029-8549 (2013) [Refereed Article]
Estimating the nutritional value of a herbivore's diet is difficult because it requires knowing what the animal eats, the relative quality of each component and how these components interact in relation to animal physiology. Current methods are cumbersome and rely on many assumptions that are hard to evaluate. We describe a new method for estimating relative diet quality directly from faeces that avoids the problems inherent in other methods. We combine this method with near infrared reflectance spectroscopy (NIRS) to analyse many samples and thus provide a technique with immense value in ecological studies. The method stems from the correlation between the concentrations of dietary and faecal nitrogen in herbivores eating a tannin-free diet, but a weaker relationship in browsers that ingest substantial amounts of tannins, which form complexes with proteins. These complexes reduce the availability of nitrogen and may increase faecal nitrogen concentrations. Using the tannin-binding compound, polyethylene glycol, we showed that tannin-bound nitrogen is a significant and variable part of faecal nitrogen in wild common brushtail possums (Trichosurus vulpecula). We developed a technique to measure faecal available nitrogen and found that it predicted the reproductive success of female brushtail possums in northern Australia. Faecal available nitrogen combined with NIRS provides a powerful tool for estimating the relative nutritional value of the diets of browsing herbivores in many ecological systems. It is a better indicator of diet quality than other commonly used single-nutrient measures such as faecal nitrogen and foliage analysis paired with observed feeding behaviour.