Scrounging herbivores use both patch quality and dominance status of patch holders when deciding which patch to join.
One of the major costs of group living is increased competition due to social information. Social information allows foragers to gain information about the location and the quality of food patches from observing other group members. Ultimately, this allows social foragers to use resources more efficiently. However, the distribution and quality of food varies both spatially and temporally and social information may result in aggregations of foragers around favourable food patches when they are available. This results in individuals of various dominance ranks aggregating around food resources and competing for food. In order to understand how dominance and patch quality interact to determine foraging behaviour, various foraging models have been created. In particular, producer-scrounger social foraging models are used to understand foraging behaviour and patch choice under competitive conditions. In producer scrounger games, individuals can either find their own food patches (produce) or join other individuals at food patches (scrounge). This study focused on how the combination of patch holder dominance status and patch quality interacts to influence patch joining decisions by scroungers. According to producer-scrounger models scroungers only join patches held by subordinate individuals. However, I found that a scrounger will join any patch as long as the patch holder is not within the top five most ranked individuals in the herd. However, as patch quality increased, fewer of the top ranked patch holders were avoided at each patch quality. This suggests that foraging is a trade-off between the costs of an aggressive interaction and the benefits gained from each patch. Behavioural titrations found that the initial density of food at a patch needs to be 2.3 times greater for a scrounger to feed from the next dominant patch holder. At high patch qualities there was a threshold point where patch quality became the driving force behind patch joining decisions and no patch holders were avoided, no matter their dominance status. Scroungers that fed from the top ranked patch holders had the same intake rate when compared with feeding with subordinate patch holders. This could be due to an increased level of vigilance by the scrounger in order to avoid an aggressive interaction with the dominant patch holder. However, scrounger’s intake rate increased when they fed from dominant patch holders that were not the top ranked herd members. This suggests that only the top ranked herd members are aggressive enough to prevent scrounging attempts. A novel discovery of this study was that although the goats formed a linear dominance hierarchy, they did not forage in accordance with it, with lower ranking individuals avoiding dominant patch holders. This suggest that in social herbivores dominance hierarchies are not maintained to determine who has priority access to food. This study shows that even large differences in dominance are not sufficient enough to prevent scrounging decisions and only the top ranked patch holders have the ability to prevent joining attempts.