Coexisting generalist herbivores occupy unique nutritional feeding niches

TitleCoexisting generalist herbivores occupy unique nutritional feeding niches
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2008
AuthorsBehmer, ST, Joern, A
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Pagination1977 -1982
Accession NumberKNZ001166
KeywordsBiodiversity, Competition, geometric framework, physiological ecology, resource partitioning

A mainstay of ecological theory and practice is that coexisting species use different resources, leading to the local development of biodiversity. However, a problem arises for understanding coexistence of multiple species if they share critical resources too generally. Here, we employ an experimental framework grounded in nutritional physiology to show that closely related, cooccurring and generalist-feeding herbivores (seven grasshopper species in the genus Melanoplus; Orthoptera: Acrididae) eat protein and carbohydrate in different absolute amounts and ratios even if they eat the same plant taxa. The existence of species-specific nutritional niches provides a cryptic mechanism that helps explain how generalist herbivores with broadly overlapping diets might coexist. We also show that performance by grasshoppers allowed to mix their diets and thus regulate their protein–carbohydrate intake matched optimal performance peaks generated from no-choice treatments. These results indicate the active nature of diet selection to achieve balanced diets and provide buffering capacity in the face of variable food quality. Our empirical findings and experimental approach can be extended to generate and test predictions concerning the intensity of biotic interactions between species, the relative abundance of species, yearly fluctuations in population size, and the nature of interactions with natural enemies in tritrophic niche space.