Yet another blog post about food: In praise of the graze

Friday, November 25th, 2011

If you’ve been looking for a way to describe your Thanksgiving eating habits–moving effortlessly between Tofurkey, fruitcake, and that stale box of Pot of Gold–perhaps “generalist feeder” will fit the bill. If it does, you’re right up there with some of nature’s other creatures as a really important player in the game of biodiversity.

A study by McGill biology doctoral student Pradeep Pillai has outlined a unified, spatially-based understanding of biodiversity that is centered around the concept of “food webs.” More than just a simple statement about the food chain, this concept shows how a generalist feeder influences, and is influenced by, the ecosystems that it occupies at any given time. The study was co-authored by professors Andrew Gonzalez and Michel Loreau, also of McGill’s Department of Biology. The study was published in PNAS (the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America).

A key difference between a specialist feeder, like a sloth (mostly cecropia leaves), and a generalist, like a raccoon (whatever’s inside that garbage can you didn’t properly shut), is that the latter doesn’t need as much total territory to forage, but moves around a lot more and changes its eating habits as it goes. This means that its “food web” is dynamic, which has implications on how we pin down the effects of habitat loss on a species that won’t stay put. Oh, and human beings are generalists, too, so the next time your favourite bistro across town gets bulldozed to make way for a freeway, remember that you’re not alone.

Photo © Monkey Business – Fotolia.com

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