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Differences in dietary composition and preference maintained despite gene flow across a woodrat hybrid zone

Cite this dataset

Nielsen, Daniel; Matocq, Marjorie (2021). Differences in dietary composition and preference maintained despite gene flow across a woodrat hybrid zone [Dataset]. Dryad.


1. Hybridization can homogenize the gene pools of species that come into secondary contact. Alternatively, species differentiation can persist despite hybridization and interspecific gene flow. When hybridization occurs across sharp environmental transitions (i.e. ecotones), spatial variation in selection may reduce interspecific gene flow through pre- and post-zygotic isolating mechanisms. Ecotones, characterized by adjacent yet distinct biotic communities, provide natural laboratories in which to investigate how environmental selection influences the ecology and evolution of organisms. For wild herbivores, differential plant availability across sharp ecotones may be an important source of dietary-based selection.

2. We studied small herbivore diet composition across a sharp ecotone where two species of woodrat, Neotoma bryanti and N. lepida, come into secondary contact with one another and hybridize. We quantified woodrat dietary preference through trnL metabarcoding of field-collected fecal pellets and experimental choice trials. Despite gene flow, parental N. bryanti and N. lepida maintain distinct diets across this fine spatial scale, and across temporal scales that span both wet and dry conditions.

3. Neotoma bryanti maintained a more diverse diet, with Frangula californica (California coffeeberry) making up a large portion of its diet. Neotoma lepida maintains a less diverse diet, with Prunus fasciculata (desert almond) comprising more than half of its diet. Both F. californica and P. fasciculata are known to produce potentially toxic plant secondary compounds (PSCs), which should deter herbivory, yet these plants have relatively high nutritional value as measured by crude protein content.

4. Neotoma bryanti and N. lepida consumed F. californica and P. fasciculata, respectively, in greater abundance than these plants are available on the landscape – indicating dietary selection. Finally, experimental preference trials revealed that N. bryanti exhibited a preference for F. californica, while N. lepida exhibited a relatively stronger preference for P. fasciculata. We find that N. bryanti exhibit a generalist herbivore strategy relative to N. lepida, which exhibit a more specialized feeding strategy in this study system.

5. Our results suggest that woodrats respond to fine-scale environmental differences in plant availability that may require different metabolic strategies in order to balance nutrient acquisition while minimizing exposure to potentially toxic PSCs.


Office of Integrative Activities, Award: 1826801

Division of Integrative Organismal Systems, Award: 1457209