Skip to main content

Assessing the nutritional consequences of switching foraging behaviour in wood bison

Cite this dataset

Hecker, Lee; Edwards, Mark; Neilsen, Scott (2022). Assessing the nutritional consequences of switching foraging behaviour in wood bison [Dataset]. Dryad.


Diet is one of the most common traits used to organize species of animals into niches. For ruminant herbivores, the breadth and uniqueness of their dietary niche is placed on a spectrum from browsers that consume woody (i.e., browse) and herbaceous (i.e., forbs) plants, to grazers with graminoid-rich diets. However, seasonal changes in plant availability and quality can lead to switching of their dietary niche, even within species. In this study, we examined whether a population of wood bison (Bison bison athabascae) in northeast Alberta, Canada seasonally switched their foraging behaviour, and if so, whether this was associated with changes in nutrient acquisition. We hypothesized that bison should switch foraging behaviours from grazing in the winter when standing, dead graminoids are the only foliar plants readily available to browsing during spring and summer as nutritious and digestible foliar parts of browse and forbs become available. If bison are switching foraging strategy to maximize protein consumption, then there should be a corresponding shift in the nutritional niche. Alternatively, if bison are eating different plants, but consuming similar amounts of nutrients, then bison are switching their dietary niche to maintain a particular nutrient composition. We found wood bison were grazers in the winter and spring, but switch to a browsing during summer. However, only winter nutrient consumption of consumed plants differed significantly among seasons. Between spring and summer, bison maintained a specific nutritional composition in their diet despite compositional differences in the consumed plants. Our evidence suggests bison are selecting plants to maintain a target macronutrient composition. We posit that herbivore’s can and will switch their dietary niche to maintain a target nutrient composition.

Usage notes

Please refer to the text in our publication or contact authors for R code.


Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Award: 396164075