Content. Native communities of herbivores have evolved fundamental dietary niches that avoid or minimise competition; the introduction of exotic species can change dietary niches, cause overlap in resource use, and result in competition for resources.
Aims. We compared niche breadth, overlap in diet, and quality of diet between introduced sika deer and native white-tailed deer in Maryland, USA. We investigated these changes in free-ranging populations where both species are allopatric as well as when they are sympatric.
Methods. We used microhistological analysis of faecal samples to determine the percentage of resources used by sika deer and white-tailed deer, as measured between geographical areas of similar habitat quality. We compared resource use specifically by controlling for harvest pressure and resource availability, which are known to alter resource use other than the presence of an additional deer species.
Key results. We observed a significant resource overlap (range 63–88%) between species. In the presence of sika deer, white-tailed deer displayed an increased niche breadth (108%) and a lower diet quality (17%). Sika deer consumed the same resources that comprised 78% of white-tailed deer diet. Unlike other native ungulates that have dietary overlap with white-tailed deer, sika deer is neither temporally nor geographically segregated in habitat use.
Conclusions. Resource overlap and changes in niche breadth and diet quality during sympatry strongly denote dietary competition between sika deer and white-tailed deer. This competition results in white-tailed deer altering the dietary selection, thereby consuming lower-quality forage.
Implications. White-tailed deer are concentrate selectors and require higher diet quality than do sika deer, which can tolerate diets higher in fibre, consistent with their classification as intermediate feeders. A decrease in the nutritional quality of resources used by white-tailed deer could contribute to the decline of white-tailed deer over time and allow the continued spread of sika deer.