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J Chem Ecol. 2006 Jun;32(6):1133-47. Epub 2006 May 4.

Behavioral responses of a generalist mammalian folivore to the physiological constraints of a chemically defended diet.

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  • 1Schools of Zoology, Pharmacy and Plant Science, CRC for Sustainable Production Forestry, Private Bag 5, University of Tasmania, Hobart, Australia. wigginsn@utas.edu.au


Mammalian herbivores, particularly browsers and folivores, encounter and consume a range of plant chemical defenses [plant secondary metabolites (PSMs)] on a regular basis. The physiological regulation of PSM ingestion and the resulting behavioral responses of mammalian herbivores directly affect their feeding decisions and the subsequent foraging strategies that they adopt. Generalist mammalian herbivores are hypothesized to consume a generalized diet because of physiological limitations of their detoxification systems. The consumption of a generalized diet is proposed to enable toxin (PSM) dilution through the use of multiple detoxification pathways. We tested the predictions of the detoxification-limitation hypothesis by offering two chemically different plant species, Eucalyptus regnans and E. globulus, to a generalist mammalian folivore, the common brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula), as single- and mixed-species diets. By feeding more efficiently, brushtail possums benefited more, through increased intake, on the mixed-species diet than on either of the single-species diets. We argue that frequently switching between chemically diverse foliage reduces the physiological constraints imposed by a PSM-rich diet and enables more efficient feeding. The behavioral responses of brushtail possums were consistent with the proposed physiological constraints of a chemically defended diet, offering support for predictions of the detoxification-limitation hypothesis. We suggest that feeding behavior of herbivores may be a useful indicator of the physiological constraints imposed by a chemically defended diet.

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