Ecological niche differences are necessary for stable species coexistence but are often difficult to discern. Models of dietary niche differentiation in large mammalian herbivores invoke the quality, quantity, and spatiotemporal distribution of plant tissues and growth forms but are agnostic toward food plant species identity. Empirical support for these models is variable, suggesting that additional mechanisms of resource partitioning may be important in sustaining large-herbivore diversity in African savannas. We used DNA metabarcoding to conduct a taxonomically explicit analysis of large-herbivore diets across southeastern Africa, analyzing ∼4,000 fecal samples of 30 species from 10 sites in seven countries over 6 y. We detected 893 food plant taxa from 124 families, but just two families-grasses and legumes-accounted for the majority of herbivore diets. Nonetheless, herbivore species almost invariably partitioned food plant taxa; diet composition differed significantly in 97% of pairwise comparisons between sympatric species, and dissimilarity was pronounced even between the strictest grazers (grass eaters), strictest browsers (nongrass eaters), and closest relatives at each site. Niche differentiation was weakest in an ecosystem recovering from catastrophic defaunation, indicating that food plant partitioning is driven by species interactions, and was stronger at low rainfall, as expected if interspecific competition is a predominant driver. Diets differed more between browsers than grazers, which predictably shaped community organization: Grazer-dominated trophic networks had higher nestedness and lower modularity. That dietary differentiation is structured along taxonomic lines complements prior work on how herbivores partition plant parts and patches and suggests that common mechanisms govern herbivore coexistence and community assembly in savannas.
Keywords: community assembly; dietary niche partitioning; ecological network analysis; modern coexistence theory; ungulate foraging behavior.