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Diet Switching by Mammalian Herbivores in Response to Exotic Grass Invasion.


Invasion by exotic grasses is a severe threat to the integrity of grassland ecosystems all over the world. Because grasslands are typically grazed by livestock and wildlife, the invasion is a community process modulated by herbivory. We hypothesized that the invasion of native South American grasslands by Eragrostis plana Nees, an exotic tussock-forming grass from Africa, could be deterred by grazing if grazers switched dietary preferences and included the invasive grass as a large proportion of their diets. Bos taurus (heifers) and Ovis aries (ewes) grazed plots with varying degrees of invasion by E. plana in a replicated manipulative experiment. Animal positions and species grazed were observed every minute in 45-min grazing session. Proportion of bites and steps in and out of E. plana tussocks were measured and used to calculate several indices of selectivity. Both heifers and ewes exhibited increasing probability of grazing E. plana as the proportion of area covered by tussocks increased, but they behaved differently. In agreement with expectations based on the allometry of dietary preferences and morphology, ewes consumed a low proportion of E. plana, except in areas that had more than 90% E. plana cover. Heifers consumed proportionally more E. plana than ewes. Contrary to our hypothesis, herbivores did not exhibit dietary switching towards the invasive grass. Moreover, they exhibited avoidance of the invasive grass and preference for short-statured native species, both of which should tend to enhance invasion. Unless invasive plants are highly palatable to livestock, the effect of grazing to deter the invasion is limited, due to the inherent avoidance of the invasive grass by the main grazers in the ecosystem, particularly sheep.

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