Yeakel, Justin D.; Uttam Bhat and Seth Newsome

Foraging in uncertain environments requires balancing the risks associated with finding alternative resources against potential gains. In arid-land environments characterized by extreme variation in the amount and seasonal timing of primary production, consumers must weigh the risks associated with foraging for preferred seeds that can be cached against fallback foods of low nutritional quality (e.g., leaves) that must be consumed immediately. Here, we explore the influence of resource scarcity, body size, and seasonal uncertainty on the expected foraging behaviors of caching rodents in the northern Chihuahaun Desert by integrating these elements with a stochastic dynamic program to determine fitness-maximizing foraging strategies. We demonstrate that resource-limited environments promote dependence on fallback foods, reducing the likelihood of starvation while increasing future risk exposure. Our results point to a qualitative difference in the use of fallback foods and the fitness benefits of caching at the threshold body size of 50 g. Above this 50-g body size threshold, we observe large fitness gains associated with the maintenance of even a modest-sized cache, whereas similar gains for smaller consumers require maintenance of unrealistically large caches. This suggests that larger-bodied consumers that cache may be less sensitive to the future uncertainties in monsoonal onset predicted by global climate scenarios, whereas smaller consumers, regardless of caching behavior, may be at greater risk.