Meat eating in wild hamadryas baboons: Opportunistic trade-offs between insects and vertebrates

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The consumption of meat may provide herbivorous animals with important nutrients that are scarce in their plant-based diet. Seasonal variation in plant food availability has been suggested to motivate dietary flexibility in a range of species and thus primates may seek more prey when key plant resources are unavailable. Alternatively, prey encounter rate may drive meat eating. Here we investigate patterns of meat eating in hamadryas baboons (Papio hamadryas) at Filoha, Awash National Park, Ethiopia. The Filoha baboons rely largely on doum palm fruit (Hyphaene thebaica), which are available most months of the year, and the young leaves of Acacia senegal, which are more abundant during the wet season. We hypothesized that the baboons would consume more meat when H. thebaica and A. senegal were less available, which we tested by comparing meat eating and consumption of these plant food species from March 2005 through February 2006. Our results reveal a high rate of vertebrate meat eating at Filoha (0.028/hour of observation) compared with other hamadryas sites. We found no relationship, however, between meat eating (either insect or vertebrate) and either rainfall or consumption of H. thebaica or A. senegal, indicating that availability of preferred plant resources does not drive meat consumption. Vertebrate consumption and time spent feeding were significantly negatively associated; there was no relationship, however, between the consumption of animal matter and either home range size or daily path length. Vertebrate and insect consumption alternated throughout the year such that the baboons maintained a small amount of animal matter in their diet year-round. Our results suggest that the baboons do not often actively seek animal matter, but consume it opportunistically, with the presence of locust and dragonfly swarms driving insect consumption, and both prey availability and the availability of feeding time shaping vertebrate predation.

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