Mule (Odocoileus hemionus) and white‐tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) are congeneric and share similar life histories, yet their distribution is segregated across much of North America. Extensive research on both species within and outside their zone of co‐occurrence has not fully explained these distribution patterns, especially the potential role of diet and foraging behavior. Therefore, we used a common garden experiment to compare diet composition, diet quality, foraging behavior, and intake of tractable mule and white‐tailed deer foraging together within the dry Douglas‐fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)/ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) forests of northeastern Washington. We sampled at 21 0.5‐ha sites from June to August 2016. We used standard bite count techniques coupled with forage biomass sampling, behavioral observations, and nutritional analyses to compare the foraging ecology of the two species. Mule and white‐tailed deer had similar activity patterns. However, mule deer took larger bites and harvested food faster than white‐tailed deer, and white‐tailed deer consumed more diverse but higher‐quality diets than mule deer. These differences resulted in mule deer acquiring ~25% more dry matter and digestible energy per day. About 90% of the diets consumed by both deer species consisted of deciduous shrubs and forbs, and they selected many of the same plant species. However, overall diet composition was 38% dissimilar, with mule deer consuming diets that were more likely to contain shrubs with higher levels of tannins and lower levels of dry matter digestibility than diets eaten by white‐tailed deer. Dietary overlap was greatest at both very low and very high forage biomass, indicating potential for modest resource competition or partitioning. Our research provides evidence that differences in diet composition of mule and white‐tailed deer do not merely reflect differences in habitat selection, but also suggest the species differ in their fundamental nutritional niches.

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Journal: Ecosphere. 2019 Jul 1;10(7).

Keywords: deer, diet composition, foraging behavior, mule, nutrition, Odocoileus,

Applications: Veterinary,

CamNtech Reference: M19058

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