Fecal nitrogen concentration as a nutritional quality indicator for European rabbit ecological studies

Esperanza Gil-Jiménez, Miriam Villamuelas, Emmanuel Serrano, Miguel Delibes, Néstor Fernández

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    6 Citations (Scopus)


    © 2015 Gil-Jiménez et al. Measuring the quality of the nutritional resources available to wild herbivores is critical to understanding trophic regulation processes. However, the direct assessment of dietary nutritional characteristics is usually difficult, which hampers monitoring nutritional constraints in natural populations. The feeding ecology of ruminant herbivores has been often assessed by analyzing fecal nitrogen (FN) concentrations, although this method has been less evaluated in other taxa. This study analyzed the suitability of FN as an indicator of ingesta quality in the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), which is a keystone lagomorph species in Mediterranean ecosystems and of great conservation interest. Firstly, domestic O. cuniculus were used to evaluate under experimental conditions the accuracy of total FN and the metabolic FN as diet quality indicators of forages with characteristics similar to those available under natural conditions. Secondly, the accuracy of Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (NIRS) to calculate FN was tested using partial least squares regression. Thirdly, a pilot field study was conducted to monitor FN dynamics from wild O. cuniculus in three different habitats during wet and drought periods. A strong association was found between diet type and total FN and metabolic FN (Pseudo-R2 ≥ 0.89). It was also found that NIRS calibrations were accurate for depicting nitrogen concentrations (R2 > 0.98 between NIRS and chemical results). Finally, the seasonal FN dynamics measured in the field were consistent with current knowledge on vegetation dynamics and forage limitations in the three habitats. The results support the use of NIRS methods and FN indices as a reliable and affordable approach to monitoring the nutritional quality of rabbit habitats. Potential applications include the assessment of the mechanistic relationships between resource limitations and population abundance, e.g., in relation to natural drought cycles and to habitat interventions aimed at reinforcing rabbit populations.
    Original languageEnglish
    Article numbere0125190
    JournalPLoS ONE
    Issue number4
    Publication statusPublished - 20 Apr 2015

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