Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Michigan, 1109 Geddes Avenue, Ann Arbor, MI, 48109-1079, USA.
Background: Body size is a major factor in the nutritional ecology of ruminant mammals. Females, due to their smaller size and smaller rumen, have more rapid food-passage times than males and thereby require higher quality forage. Males are more efficient at converting high-fiber forage into usable energy and thus, are more concerned with quantity. American bison are sexually dimorphic and sexually segregate for the majority of their adult lives, and in Yellowstone National Park, they occur in two distinct subpopulations within the Northern and Central ranges. We used fecal nitrogen and stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen from American bison to investigate sex-specific differences in diet composition, diet quality, and dietary breadth between the mating season and a time period spanning multiple years, and compared diet indicators for these different time periods between the Northern and Central ranges.
Results: During mating season, diet composition of male and female American bison differed significantly; females had higher quality diets, and males had greater dietary breadth. Over the multi-year period, females had higher quality diets and males, greater dietary breadth. Diet segregation for bison in the Central Range was more pronounced during the mating season than for the multi-year period and females had higher quality diets than males. Finally, diet segregation in the Northern Range was more pronounced during the multi-year period than during the mating season, and males had greater dietary breadth.
Conclusions: Female bison in Yellowstone National Park have higher quality diets than males, whereas males ingest a greater diversity of plants or plants parts, and bison from different ranges exhibited more pronounced diet segregation during different times. Collectively, our results suggest that diet segregation in bison of Yellowstone National Park is associated with sex-specific differences in nutritional demands. Altogether, our results highlight the importance of accounting for spatial and temporal heterogeneity when conducting dietary studies on wild ungulates.