Intraspecific strategic responses of African elephants to temporal variation in forage quality

Leigh Ann Woolley, Joshua J. Millspaugh, Rami J. Woods, Samantha Janse Van Rensburg, Bruce R. Page, Rob Slotow

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

37 Scopus citations


Mammalian herbivores adopt foraging strategies to optimize nutritional trade-offs against restrictions imposed by body size, nutritional requirements, digestive anatomy, physiology, and the forage resource they exploit. Selective or generalist feeding strategies scale with body size across species. However, within species, where constraints should be most similar, responses to limitation have rarely been examined. We used African elephants (Loxodonta africana) to test for changes in seasonal diet quality of individuals of differing body size and sex through measurement of fecal nitrogen and phosphorus. We measured physiological stress response of these age and sex classes to seasonal change by fecal glucocorticoid metabolite levels (i.e., stress hormones). Large body size increased tolerance to lower-quality forage. Adult males and females exhibited divergent trends; females had higher diet quality than males, irrespective of body size. When limited by forage availability or quality during the dry season, diet quality declined across all body sizes, but weaned calves ingested a higher-quality diet than larger-bodied adults. On release from restriction during the wet season, weaned calf nitrogen concentrations were consistently high and stress hormone levels decreased, whereas adult female phosphorus levels were highest and less variable and stress hormone levels were unchanged. The ability to adjust forage quality is an important strategy used to ensure adequate nutritional intake according to body size limitations. Although body size is a key determining factor of dietary differences between adult elephants, foraging strategies are also driven by specific nutritional requirements, which may override the body size effects driving foraging decisions in some cases. The diversity of intraspecific response highlights ecologically segregated entities within a species and should be a concern for population management planning, particularly for threatened species. Fecal diet quality and stress hormone analysis could provide an early and sensitive indicator for monitoring age and sex class responses to resource restriction in high-density elephant populations.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)827-835
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Wildlife Management
Issue number6
StatePublished - Aug 2009


  • Allometry
  • Dimorphism
  • Foraging strategy
  • Limitation
  • Loxodonta africana
  • Nutrition
  • Seasonal restriction
  • South Africa


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