Diet selection and foraging efficiency of Nguni goats in the bushveld of Gauteng, South Africa.
Diet selection and foraging efficiency are primary driving behavioural processes in mammalian herbivore plant interaction. They determine the quality of production and also impact on vegetation, necessitating managerial inputs that will sustain productivity and conserve or improve on its plant species composition. In view of a better understanding of browse/browser interaction in subtropical arid savannah, Nguni goats were adopted as our model browser considering their socioeconomic importance to local, regional and global economy. The primary objective of this research was to determine the seasonal and plant species trend of diet selection indexed by intake and foraging efficiency indexed by intake rate. The secondary objective was to investigate how plant morphological variables such as spinescence, shoot morphology such as long shoots as opposed to short shoots, and broad as against fine leaves, phenological variables such as evergreen versus deciduous species, and plant chemical components including: crude protein, neutral detergent fibre (NDF), acid detergent fibre (ADF), hemicellulose, cellulose, acid detergent lignin and condensed tannins relate and possibly explain the observed patterns. Six browse plants, Acacia nilotica, Acacia robusta, Ehretia rigida, Euclea crispa, Rhus lancea and Ziziphus mucronata were used in the first experiment to determine short term intake during the dry and rainy seasons. In the second experiment, 10 browse plants: Acacia nilotica, Acacia robusta, Combretum epiculatum, Dicrostachys cinerea, Ehretia rigida, Euclea crispa, Gymnosporia buxifolia, Rhus lancea and Ziziphus mucronata were used to determine short term intake rate in the dry, early rainy and late rainy seasons. Diet selection was significantly affected by species (F5,60= 31.87 ; p< 0.05) and the interaction between seasons and species (F,60= 2.52; p= 0.039). Intake was not significantly higher in the rainy relative to the dry season, 3.94 ± 0.42a gDM compared to 3.57 ± 0.42a gDM. Rhus lancea and A. robusta were the most preferred species in both seasons, while Z. mucronata was more preferred in the dry season than E. crispa but in the rainy season it was the opposite. Dichrostachys cinerea and A. nilotica were the least preferred in both seasons, but with improved intake of D. cinerea in the rainy season, whereas that of A. nilotica declined significantly. Intake of plant species with long shoots, which were also broad leafed, was significantly higher than that of old short shoot species (t= -3.99; df= 65.80; p= 0.0002). Similarly, intake of evergreen species was significantly higher than that of deciduous species (t= 5.22; df= 34.02; p< 0.0001). Cellulose in the rainy season positively correlated with intake (r= 0.85; n= 6; p= 0.031), bite number cropped (r= 0.98; n= 6; p= 0.001) and browsing time (r= 0.93; n= 6; p= 0.007). In the dry season there was no correlation of any plant chemical components with intake except cellulose that correlated with the intake variable of bite size (r= 0.87; n= 6; p= 0.023). The following regression equation was generated from the correlation to model intake: Intake= 0.68 + BS (3.07), (R2= 0.71; p< 0.05), where BS= bite size. Intake rate varied amongst species (p< 0.05), as well as seasons (p< 0.05). Instantaneous intake rate in the dry season were highest for A. caffra and G. buxifolia, followed by C. apiculatum, R. lancea, E. crispa, A. robusta and Z. mucronata. The bottom tier comprised of E. rigida, D. cinerea and A. nilotica. At the onset of the rainy season, A. robusta, A. caffra and R. lancea had the highest instantaneous intake rate, followed by C. apiculatum, E. crispa and Z. mucronata. The lowest instantaneous intake rates were derived from D. cinerea, E. rigida, G. buxifolia and A. nilotica. At late rainy season, A. robusta, A. caffra, C. apiculatum, E. crispa and R. lancea yielded the highest intake rate, followed by D. cinerea, G. buxifolia and Z. mucronata in the middle tier, and the least were derived from E. rigida and A. nilotica. Acacia caffra, A. robusta, R. lancea, C. apiculatum and E. crispa featured amongst species with the higest intake rate in all three seasons, whereas G. buxifolia from which one of the highest intake rates was derived in the dry season declined to amongst those with the least in both early and late rainy seasons. Ehretia rigida, D. cinerae and A. nilotica were consistent in all three seasons as the least efficiently foraged Browses with long shoots were more efficiently foraged upon than those with short shoots (t= -3.2; df= 284.64; p< 0.002). Evergreen plant species yielded higher instantaneous intake rate relative to deciduous species (t= 2.02; df= 278.01; p< 0.044). Intake rate of spinescent relative to spineless species was not significantly different but more bites were cropped from spinescent relative to spineless species (t= 2.80; df= 256.77; p= 0.006). Bite sizes were smaller for spinescent relative to spineless species (t= -3.30; df= 227.4; p= 0.001). There were significant positive correlations of cellulose with intake rate (r= 0.7; n= 10; p= 0.023), and with condensed tannins (r= 0.7; n= 10; p= 0.022) in the dry season. Additionally, cellulose also had a positive correlation with bite size in the same season (r= 0.7; n= 10; p= 0.016). At early rainy season, there was no correlation of intake with any of the plant chemical components, whereas, NDF (r= 0.6; n= 10; p= 0.044), hemicellulose (r= 0.8; n= 10; p= 0.012) and condensed tannins (r= 0.7; n= 10; p= 0.032) all correlated positively with browsing time at early rainy season. The following regression equations were derived to model intake rate and some intake rate related variables: (1) intake rate= 0.433 + BSDM (0.081), R2= 0.68, p< 0.05 and BSDM= bite size dry matter; (2) Bite rate= 0.503 –BSDM (0.147), R2= 0.597, p< 0.05 and BSDM= bite size dry matter; (3) Bite size dry matter= 1.713 – BR (4.210), R2= 0.597 ,p< 0.05 and BR= bite rate, and (4) Intake dry matter= 3.804 + BSDM (0.865), R2= 0.607, p< 0.05 and BSDM= bite size dry matter. Diet selection and foraging efficiency were both influenced more by shoot and leaf morphology than by spinescence. Plant chemistry on the other hand had diverse and inconsistent effect on diet selection and foraging efficiency trends. The results therefore have important and far reaching implications for Nguni goat and goat production as a whole in the bush veld of Gauteng and related ecological zones.