Quantifying water requirements of African ungulates through a combination of functional traits

Kihwele ES, Mchomvu V, Owen-Smith N, Hetem RS, Hutchinson MC, Potter AB, Olff H & Veldhuis MP

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Climate and land use change modify surface water availability in African savannas. Surface water is a key resource for both wildlife and livestock and its spatial and temporal distribution is important for understanding the composition of large herbivore assemblages in savannas. Yet, the extent to which ungulate species differ in their water requirements remains poorly quantified. Here, we infer the water requirements of 48 African ungulates by combining six different functional traits related to physiological adaptations to reduce water loss, namely minimum dung moisture, relative dung pellet size, relative surface area of the distal colon, urine osmolality, relative medullary thickness, and evaporation rate. In addition, we investigated how these differences in water requirements relate to differences in dietary water intake. We observed strong correlations between traits related to water loss through dung, urine and evaporation, suggesting that ungulates minimize water loss through multiple pathways simultaneously, which suggests that each trait can thus be used independently to predict water requirements. Furthermore, we found that browsers and grazers had similar water requirements, but browsers are expected to be less dependent on surface water because they acquire more water through their diet. We conclude that these key functional traits are a useful way to determine differences in water requirements and an important tool for predicting changes in herbivore community assembly resulting from changes in surface water availability.