Context . Measures of intake and digestibility from captive feeding experiments are often used to evaluate the nutritional value of plant species to herbivores; however, there is question about how well plant-quality rankings from these trials predict foraging patterns of free-ranging animals. Studies addressing the alignment of results from feeding trials and herbivory in the field using captive and free-roaming conspecifics are needed.
Aims . Our goal was to compare the feeding patterns of snowshoe hares in captive intake and digestion trials with those of free-living conspecifics in the species’ south-western range.
Methods . We conducted in vivo intake and digestion trials using captive hares to determine quality and consumption levels of the predominant conifer species in our study system. In the field, we quantified browsing intensity and over-winter depletion patterns of these conifers. We then compared voluntary intake and nutritional quality measured in captivity to consumption in the field.
Key results . Digestible energy (DE, kJ g–1) of conifers ranged from 11.0 (Pinus contorta) to 13.8 (Pseudotsuga menziesii) among six conifers, and digestible protein (DP, g protein per 100 g feed) from 1.2 (Thuja plicata) to 2.7 (P. contorta). During digestion trials, single-species intake was correlated with the content of digestible protein (DP) and digestible energy (DE). Hares maintained energy balance when fed two single-species diets (Pinus contorta, Pseudotsuga menziesii) and a mixed-species diet. Conifer species on which hares were able to maintain body mass (Pinus contorta, Picea engelmannii, Pseudotsuga menziesii) also tended to be the most heavily exploited by free-living hares. DP content of browse species predicted both browsing intensity and overwinter depletion of conifer species.
Conclusions . Voluntary intake and nutritional quality of browse, especially DP, successfully predicted foraging patterns of free-ranging conspecifics.
Implications . Intake and digestion trials can be a useful tool for better understanding patterns of herbivory in the field, and winter habitat quality for populations in this region is likely to be influenced by access to the most energy- and protein-rich conifers.