Research Article: Determination of Foraging Thresholds and Effects of Application on Energetic Carrying Capacity for Waterfowl

Date Published: March 19, 2015

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Heath M. Hagy, Richard M. Kaminski, Antoni Margalida.


Energetic carrying capacity of habitats for wildlife is a fundamental concept used to better understand population ecology and prioritize conservation efforts. However, carrying capacity can be difficult to estimate accurately and simplified models often depend on many assumptions and few estimated parameters. We demonstrate the complex nature of parameterizing energetic carrying capacity models and use an experimental approach to describe a necessary parameter, a foraging threshold (i.e., density of food at which animals no longer can efficiently forage and acquire energy), for a guild of migratory birds. We created foraging patches with different fixed prey densities and monitored the numerical and behavioral responses of waterfowl (Anatidae) and depletion of foods during winter. Dabbling ducks (Anatini) fed extensively in plots and all initial densities of supplemented seed were rapidly reduced to 10 kg/ha and other natural seeds and tubers combined to 170 kg/ha, despite different starting densities. However, ducks did not abandon or stop foraging in wetlands when seed reduction ceased approximately two weeks into the winter-long experiment nor did they consistently distribute according to ideal-free predictions during this period. Dabbling duck use of experimental plots was not related to initial seed density, and residual seed and tuber densities varied among plant taxa and wetlands but not plots. Herein, we reached several conclusions: 1) foraging effort and numerical responses of dabbling ducks in winter were likely influenced by factors other than total food densities (e.g., predation risk, opportunity costs, forager condition), 2) foraging thresholds may vary among foraging locations, and 3) the numerical response of dabbling ducks may be an inconsistent predictor of habitat quality relative to seed and tuber density. We describe implications on habitat conservation objectives of using different foraging thresholds in energetic carrying capacity models and suggest scientists reevaluate assumptions of these models used to guide habitat conservation.

Partial Text

Energetic carrying capacity of habitats for wildlife is a fundamental concept in population ecology and often is used to guide conservation and management of natural resources. However, accurately estimating carrying capacity for purposes of efficient conservation planning is difficult and often based on untested assumptions [1, 2, 3, 4]. For example, scientists may assume that carrying capacity is disproportionately influenced by one or few factors, such as food availability, and that population goals can be met by providing sufficient foraging habitat (e.g., energetic carrying capacity [5, 6, 7, 8]). However, foraging animals must balance benefits of foraging in a patch with the physiological costs of obtaining and metabolizing foods, risk of predation, and missed opportunity costs of not foraging elsewhere [9, 10, 11, 12, 13]. Thus, even relatively simple models of energetic carrying capacity require estimation and experimental validation of multiple parameters to ensure sufficient habitat exists to meet the energetic needs of animals using an area for a given period of time.

Our results illustrate the complexities associated with predicting food availability and modeling energetic carrying capacity for wildlife. We demonstrated that numerical responses and foraging behavior measured diurnally did not correspond consistently with foraging profitability of habitats. Although we described an example for waterfowl, similar energetic carrying capacity models and assumptions are applied to other taxa throughout North America and scientists should recognize the difficulties and potential biases associated with parameterizing energetic carrying capacity models. Future researchers may desire to examine the relative influence of predation risk, seed composition, human disturbance, patch structure which might influence search costs, other wetland characteristics, and endogenous factors on foraging thresholds of dabbling ducks in natural wetlands. Determination of the relative influences of environmental and endogenous factors on food availability thresholds or other foraging thresholds might allow accurate prediction of food availability without complex models if effects of those factors are small [23]. Scientists should examine the relationships between various foraging thresholds and estimate the potential effects of incorrect application on energetic carrying capacity models and subsequent habitat conservation goals.