Monitoring temporal and spatial changes in the resource availability of endangered species contributes to their conservation. The number of critically endangered mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) in the Virunga Volcano population has doubled over the past three decades, but no studies have examined how food availability has changed during that period. First, we assessed if the plant species consumed by the gorillas have changed in abundance and distribution during the past two decades. In 2009-2010, we replicated a study conducted in 1988-1989 by measuring the frequency, density, and biomass of plant species consumed by the gorillas in 496 plots (ca. 6 km(2)) in the Karisoke study area in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. We expected to observe a decreased presence of major gorilla food plants as a likely result of density-dependent overharvesting by gorillas. Among the five most frequently consumed species (composing approximately 70% of the gorilla's diet, excluding bamboo), two have decreased in availability and abundance, while three have increased. Some species have undergone shifts in their altitudinal distribution, possibly due to regional climatic changes. Second, we made baseline measurements of food availability in a larger area currently utilized by the gorillas. In the extended sampling (n = 473 plots) area (ca. 25 km(2) ), of the five most frequently consumed species, two were not significantly different in frequency from the re-sampled area, while two occurred significantly less frequently, and one occurred significantly more frequently. We discuss the potential impact of gorilla-induced herbivory on changes of vegetation abundance. The changes in the species most commonly consumed by the gorillas could affect their nutrient intake and stresses the importance of monitoring the interrelation among plant population dynamics, species density, and resource use.
© 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.