Changes in adult female white rhino seasonal home ranges in relation to variation in food quality and availability.
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As the dry season progresses across southern Africa, the availability and quality of food declines for large herbivores. Female white rhinos compensate for these declines by expanding and/or shifting their home ranges. These changes may be to incorporate habitat types that contain high quality food or quite simply more food. To determine the factors that drive these seasonal changes in home ranges, I focused on dry season changes in the availability and quality of grass in habitats utilised by white rhinos in the Ithala Game Reserve, South Africa. I expected that if food quality was the main driver, white rhinos would follow optimal foraging principles and incorporate habitat types with the highest nutritional quality into their dry season home ranges. Alternatively, due to their large body size (>1000 kg) and thus ability to survive on low quality food, they may rather incorporate habitat types with high food availability. In contrast to previous studies, I found that during the dry season female white rhinos did not increase the size of their home ranges, but rather shifted their home range boundaries. This resulted in individuals increasing the amount of Bushveld and decreasing the amount of Wooded Grasslands within their dry season home ranges. When I explored the different factors that could explain these patterns, I found that changes in the crude protein content of grass was the key factor driving the incorporation and exclusion of habitat types in the home ranges. During the dry season, white rhinos incorporated the habitat that had the smallest seasonal reduction in crude protein content, while excluding the one with the largest decrease in crude protein. As a result, my results suggest that the search for high quality best explains the seasonal home range shifts of female white rhinos in the Ithala Game Reserve.