Strontium isotope analyses of large herbivore habitat use in the Cape Fynbos region of South Africa
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The Cape Fynbos region of South Africa, a global biodiversity hotspot, hosted a diverse large mammal fauna till shortly after permanent European settlement (1652). How these animals survived in this exceptionally nutrient-poor environment is puzzling and it is generally believed that they restricted their movements to the more fertile shale areas. We tested the hypothesis that large herbivores avoid nutrient-poor limestone and sandstone fynbos shrublands in favour of shale-derived renosterveld vegetation using strontium (Sr) isotope analysis. If this technique could reconstruct the preferred feeding habitats of the contemporary fauna, it might also be useful for reconstructing the preferred feeding grounds of an extinct fauna. Using the assumption that small rodents have spatially restricted foraging activities, we determined the 87Sr/86Sr isotope ratios of rodent teeth to establish the isotopic signal characteristic of the different geological substrates in the area. We then analysed 87Sr/86Sr isotope ratios in the bones of a number of different large herbivores found in De Hoop Nature Reserve using laser ablation multi-collector inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry.These values were compared to the bioavailable (rodent) values on the respective geological substrates. The technique identified differences in feeding substrate selection between different species and groups of the same species. The results also showed that shale renosterveld shrubland is not the exclusive source of nutrition for the large herbivores. Strikingly different isotope ratios among individuals in some populations pointed to significant dispersal events from distant sources. However, we were unable to pinpoint the exact feeding areas using Sr isotope analysis probably because some animals use a combination of substrates for feeding and because the geology of the study area is complex with graded isotope signals. We suggest that this technique is a valuable additional tool for exploring large mammal foraging behaviour on habitats associated with contrasting and less complex geology.
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