Energetic constraints on the diet of terrestrial carnivores

Nature. 1999 Nov 18;402(6759):286-8. doi: 10.1038/46266.


Species in the mammalian order Carnivora exhibit a huge diversity of life histories with body sizes spanning more than three orders of magnitude. Despite this diversity, most terrestrial carnivores can be classified as either feeding on invertebrates and small vertebrates or on large vertebrates. Small carnivores feed predominantly on invertebrates probably because they are a superabundant resource (sometimes 90% of animal biomass); however, intake rates of invertebrate feeders are low, about one tenth of those of vertebrate feeders. Although small carnivores can subsist on this diet because of low absolute energy requirements, invertebrate feeding appears to be unsustainable for larger carnivores. Here we show, by reviewing the most common live prey in carnivore diets, that there is a striking transition from feeding on small prey (less than half of predator mass) to large prey (near predator mass), occurring at predator masses of 21.5-25 kg. We test the hypothesis that this dichotomy is the consequence of mass-related energetic requirements and we determine the predicted maximum mass that an invertebrate diet can sustain. Using a simple energetic model and known invertebrate intake rates, we predict a maximum sustainable mass of 21.5 kg, which matches the point where predators shift from small to large prey.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Body Constitution
  • Carnivora / physiology*
  • Diet
  • Energy Metabolism
  • Invertebrates
  • Models, Biological
  • Predatory Behavior / physiology