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Behavioural contributions to the regulated intake of plant secondary metabolites in koalas

Karen J. Marsh

Ian R. Wallis

William J. Foley

School of Botany and Zoology, Australian National University, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory

 

Abstract

In a given period of time, herbivores often eat less as dietary plant secondary metabolite (PSM) concentrations increase. This reduction in total food intake is interpreted as a need for the herbivore to regulate PSM ingestion in order to avoid toxication. However, regulation of PSM ingestion involves more than the reduction of total intake; it involves an alteration of meal patterns, through a reduction in the number and/or the size of the meals eaten. Despite this, studies of how herbivores alter their meal patterns when oVered varying concentrations of PSMs are rare. We investigated whether koalas adjust the number and/or the size of their meals when oVered eucalypt foliage varying naturally in concentrations of formylated phloroglucinol compounds (FPCs), a group of PSMs that have previously been shown to inhibit total food intake. High FPC concentrations caused koalas to eat more slowly, eat shorter meals and eat less per meal, which resulted in a reduced total intake. Because increasing FPC concentrations did not cause koalas to alter the number of meals that they ate, clear individual diVerences between koalas were observed, where some consistently ate fewer larger meals and others ate many smaller meals. Thus, diVerent feeding strategies may still achieve the same outcome of a regulated intake of PSMs. The changes observed match the meal patterns of other herbivores ingesting PSMs known to stimulate nausea and emetic pathways, supporting the idea that feedback signals from nausea are an important way that koalas avoid toxication when eating eucalypt foliage.