Individual variation in the competitive ability of interference-prone foragers: The relative importance of foraging efficiency and susceptibility to interference

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Authors: Caldow, R.W.G., Goss-Custard, J.D., Stillman, R.A., Le Dit Durell, S.E.A.V., Swinfen, R. and Bregnballe, T.

Journal: Journal of Animal Ecology

Volume: 68

Issue: 5

Pages: 869-878

ISSN: 0021-8790

DOI: 10.1046/j.1365-2656.1999.00334.x

1. Individual variation in the competitive ability of foraging animals arises from variation in their intrinsic foraging efficiency and in their susceptibility to interference from competitors. Empirical and theoretical studies have concentrated on quantifying the latter and examining its role in determining the distribution and dynamics of animal populations, but have seldom considered the role of variation in foraging efficiency. Using the frequency of occurrence of oystercatchers in supplementary feeding habitats as an index of their competitive ability, we assessed the relative importance of foraging efficiency and susceptibility to interference in determining the overall competitive ability of an individual. 2. Individual mussel-feeding oystercatchers varied in their tendency to supplement their low-tide intake by feeding on other prey on upshore tidal flats and in fields. Individuals that opened mussels by stabbing occurred on upshore flats more often than birds which hammered mussels, whereas young birds were more likely to visit the fields than older birds. This difference between habitats emphasized the need to understand the individual differences underlying these class effects. 3. Foraging efficiency increased with age and differed between feeding methods. Dominance also increased with age, but did not differ between feeding methods. An individual's foraging efficiency was not related to its dominance. 4. Individual variation in the usage of either upshore flats or fields, and of each habitat separately, was related to individual variation in foraging efficiency, but not to variation in dominance. Individuals of poor intrinsic foraging ability made greater use of supplementary feeding habitats than did more efficient foragers. 5. Our results show that, even in an interference-prone system and across a wide range of circumstances, individual variation in foraging efficiency is the major determinant of overall competitive ability. We believe, therefore, that this source of individual variation is of greater importance in determining variation in mortality risk within a population than the effort invested in its study hitherto would suggest. We suggest that a modelling approach is necessary to establish the competitive conditions under which susceptibility to interference might become the more important determinant of competitive ability and, hence, whether such conditions are ever likely to occur in natural populations. We argue that greater emphasis needs to be placed on identifying the determinants of foraging efficiency and its variation between individuals.

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