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Habitat quality and heterogeneity influence distribution and behavior in African buffalo (Syncerus caffer).

Abstract

Top-down effects of predators on prey behavior and population dynamics have been extensively studied. However, some populations of very large herbivores appear to be regulated primarily from the bottom up. Given the importance of food resources to these large herbivores, it is reasonable to expect that forage heterogeneity (variation in quality and quantity) affects individual and group behaviors as well as distribution on the landscape. Forage heterogeneity is often strongly driven by underlying soils, so substrate characteristics may indirectly drive herbivore behavior and distribution. Forage heterogeneity may further interact with predation risk to influence prey behavior and distribution. Here we examine differences in spatial distribution, home range size, and grouping behaviors of African buffalo as they relate to geologic substrate (granite and basalt) and variation in food quality and quantity. In this study, we use satellite imagery, forage quantity data, and three years of radio-tracking data to assess how forage quality, quantity, and heterogeneity affect the distribution and individual and herd behavior of African buffalo. We found that buffalo in an overall poorer foraging environment keyed-in on exceptionally high-quality areas, whereas those foraging in a more uniform, higher-quality area used areas of below-average quality. Buffalo foraging in the poorer-quality environment had smaller home range sizes, were in smaller groups, and tended to be farther from water sources than those foraging in the higher-quality environment. These differences may be due to buffalo creating or maintaining nutrient hotspots (small, high-quality foraging areas) in otherwise low-quality foraging areas, and the location of these hotspots may in part be determined by patterns of predation risk.

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