Despite the shared prediction that the width of a population’s dietary niche expands as food becomes limiting, the Niche Variation Hypothesis (NVH) and Optimal Foraging Theory (OFT) offer contrasting views about how individuals alter diet selection when food is limited. Classical OFT predicts that dietary preferences do not change as food becomes limiting, so individuals expand their diets as they compensate for a lack of preferred foods. In contrast, the NVH predicts that among-individual variation in cognition, physiology, or morphology create functional trade-offs in foraging efficiency, thereby causing individuals to specialize on different subsets of food as food becomes limiting. To evaluate (a) the predictions of the NVH and OFT and (b) evidence for physiological and cognitive-based functional trade-offs, we used DNA microsatellites and metabarcoding to quantify the diet, microbiome, and genetic relatedness (a proxy for social learning) of 218 moose (Alces alces) across six populations that varied in their degree of food limitation. Consistent with both the NVH and OFT, dietary niche breadth increased with food limitation. Increased diet breadth of individuals-rather than increased diet specialization-was strongly correlated with both food limitation and dietary niche breadth of populations, indicating that moose foraged in accordance with OFT. Diets were not constrained by inheritance of the microbiome or inheritance of diet selection, offering support for the little-tested hypothesis that functional trade-offs in food use (or lack thereof) determine whether populations adhere to the predictions of the NVH or OFT. Our results indicate that both the absence of strong functional trade-offs and the digestive physiology of ruminants provide contexts under which populations should forage in accordance with OFT rather than the NVH. Also, because dietary niche width increased with increased food limitation, OFT and the NVH provide theoretical support for the notion that plant-herbivore interaction networks are plastic rather than static, which has important implications for understanding interspecific niche partitioning. Lastly, because population-level dietary niche breadth and calf recruitment are correlated, and because calf recruitment can be a proxy for food limitation, our work demonstrates how diet data can be employed to understand a populations’ proximity to carrying capacity.
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