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The burden of size and growth for the juveniles of large mammalian herbivores: structural and functional constraints in the feeding biology of juveniles relative to adults in red kangaroos, Osphranter rufus

Citation

Dawson, Terence et al. (2021), The burden of size and growth for the juveniles of large mammalian herbivores: structural and functional constraints in the feeding biology of juveniles relative to adults in red kangaroos, Osphranter rufus, Dryad, Dataset, https://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.6hdr7sr11

Abstract

Juvenile mammals in their post weaning developmental stages face many challenges in transitioning to adulthood. Among large grazing species such as ruminant bovids and cervids an overarching challenge is acquiring and processing sufficient nutrients to survive and grow, with a gut that may not yet be fully developed. Marsupial kangaroos of Australia face similar challenges; they also digest vegetation by fermentation in a large foregut. In red kangaroos, Osphranter rufus (= Macropus rufus), the dominant species of Australia’s arid interior, females may breed continuously; however, juvenile recruitment to the adult population is irregular and coincident with sporadic rainfall. As compared with adult females the nutritional requirements of juvenile O. rufus are high in relation to their body mass (BM), largely due to the cost of their rapid growth. We examined processes that juveniles have in their morphology, physiology and behaviours to meet their elevated nutritional needs, by comparing recently weaned juveniles of both sexes and adult female O. rufus in their desert habitat. Features studied include relative body sizes, relative dimensions and capacities of principal gut regions, the foregut, small intestine, caecum and large intestine with rectum. Also examined were digesta attributes and rates of digesta excretion. Additionally, the rates of change in skull parameters and dental characteristics to maturity were assessed. Field determinations of diet choice were made for both age classes. In juveniles the content masses of major gut structures were related to body mass (BM), as were those of adult females, i. e. ~BM1.0. In both age classes the digesta mass of the foreguts exceeded 75 % of the total digesta mass. Diets of both juvenile and adult O. rufus largely focused on grasses. Juveniles had higher rates of digesta excretion while foraging than adults. In addition, the foregut contents in juveniles occupies proportionally less of the total gut than in adult females. Together, the higher excretion rate and smaller relative foregut of juveniles suggests that they necessarily focus on forage that can be rapidly digested, such as young, green grasses or herbage. Comparison of the skulls of juveniles and adults revealed how this harvest can occur. Relative to BM juveniles had skulls of larger volume than adults. Additionally, during growth the skull lengthens proportionally faster than increasing. By weaning the dimensions of the incisor bite of juveniles neared those of adult females. The area of wear on premolars/molars increased only slowly relative to the development of incisors, further pointing to juveniles selecting more digestible forage than adults. The intermittent availability of such forage, principally young grasses, appears key to the significant recruitment into the O. rufus population in their arid habitat.

Funding

Australian Research Council