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Dietary specialists often reside in habitats that provide a high and predictable abundance of their primary food, which is usually difficult for other herbivores to consume because of high levels of plant toxins or structural impediments. Therefore, sympatric specialist and generalist herbivores may partition food resources within and among plants. We compared how a dietary specialist (pygmy rabbit, Brachylagus idahoensis) and generalist (mountain cottontail, Sylvilagus nuttallii) used sagebrush as a food resource during winter across 3 field sites in Idaho, USA, and in controlled feeding trials with captive rabbits. The proportion of sagebrush consumed by both rabbit species varied among sites, indicating that characteristics of sagebrush plants and the surrounding plant community influenced use of sagebrush. In addition, free-ranging and captive pygmy rabbits consumed a greater proportion of sagebrush and cropped smaller stem diameters with a greater proportion of sagebrush leaves (high monoterpenes, low fiber) relative to stems (low monoterpenes, high fiber) than did cottontails. Cottontails frequently discarded the leafy tips of sagebrush branches. Cottontails are more tolerant of fiber and less tolerant of sagebrush toxins than pygmy rabbits. Cottontails consumed large diameter stems, which diluted toxins in sagebrush but increased fiber intake and reduced digestible nitrogen intake. Pygmy rabbits are less tolerant of fiber but more able to detoxify and eliminate sagebrush toxins than cottontails. Pygmy rabbits consumed small diameter stems, which reduced fiber intake, but increased intake of toxins from sagebrush leaves. Although partitioning of stems and leaves within sagebrush plants may provide a mechanism for coexistence of specialist and generalist rabbits, higher than expected dietary overlap between both free-ranging and captive rabbits in winter might create resource competition in areas with high-density sympatric populations or low availability of sagebrush. In addition, these contrasting foraging strategies have the potential to influence dynamics of sagebrush communities over time.

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This is a pre-copyedited, author-produced PDF of an article accepted for publication in Journal of Mammology following peer review. The version of record:

Crowell, M.M.; Shipley, L.A.; Forbey, J.S.; Rachlow, J.L.; and Kelsey, R.G. (2018). Dietary Partitioning of Toxic Leaves and Fibrous Stems Differs Between Sympatric Specialist and Generalist Mammalian Herbivores. Journal of Mammalogy, 99(3), 565-577

is available online at doi: 10.1093/jmammal/gyy018

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