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1 August 2008 Facts From Feces: Nitrogen Still Measures Up as a Nutritional Index for Mammalian Herbivores
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Fecal nitrogen (FN) has been applied widely as an index of dietary quality in studies of nutritional ecology of free-ranging and captive vertebrate herbivores, particularly ruminants. Three related articles in the Journal of Wildlife Management (JWM; Leslie and Starkey 1985, 1987; Hobbs 1987) have been cited (n = 150) in 87 publications and 39 peer-reviewed journals. The critique by Hobbs (1987) and the reply by Leslie and Starkey (1987) on limitations and appropriate applications of FN have been used to justify use of FN or negate its value as a nutritional proxy. We undertook a retrospective analysis of FN applications since 1985, largely because we sensed that methodological cautions noted in the 3 JWM publications were not being followed, leading to faulty conclusions and management applications, and that application protocols needed updating. From January 1986 through July 2007, the 107 species-by-continent applications of FN, citing the 3 JWM publications singly or in any combination, were diverse; FN was used in various ways on 5 continents and for 50 wild and domestic species. Cumulative rates of departure from recommended FN applications increased in recent years, largely in studies that compare different species while failing to fully acknowledge that differences likely reflected digestive capabilities rather than differences in some aspect of dietary intake. Post-1985 research on plant secondary compounds (e.g., tannins) has refined limitations to the application of FN, permitting more straightforward protocols than were possible in 1985. Although use does not necessarily reflect value, the number of published applications during the past 22 years indicates that peer reviewers from a variety of scientific disciplines view FN as a suitable proxy for nutritional status, which can be used to contrast study units when carefully defined by the study design. Any index can have shortcomings, and there are still circumstances when application of FN is problematic. Precise prediction of intake with FN under field conditions is still hampered by inherent variability, but contrasts of comparable study units and species can be appropriate. Published protocols for FN, as amended herein, should be adhered to, and conclusions are strengthened by the use of multiple nutritional indices.

David M. Leslie, R. Terry Bowyer, and Jonathan A. Jenks "Facts From Feces: Nitrogen Still Measures Up as a Nutritional Index for Mammalian Herbivores," Journal of Wildlife Management 72(6), 1420-1433, (1 August 2008).
Published: 1 August 2008

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