Functional responses in the habitat selection of a generalist mega-herbivore, the African savannah elephant
Resource selection function (RSF) models are commonly used to quantify species/ habitat associations and predict species occurrence on the landscape. However, these models are sensitive to changes in resource availability and can result in a functional response to resource abundance, where preferences change as a function of availability. For generalist species, which utilize a wide range of habitats and resources, quantifying habitat selection is particularly challenging. Spatial and temporal changes in resource abundance can result in changes in selection preference affecting the robustness of habitat selection models. We examined selection preference across a wide range of ecological conditions for a generalist mega-herbivore, the savannah elephant (Loxodonta africana), to quantify general patterns in selection and to illustrate the importance of functional responses in elephant habitat selection. We found a functional response in habitat selection across both space and time for tree cover, with tree cover being unimportant to habitat selection in the mesic, eastern populations during the wet season. A temporal functional response for water was also evident, with greater variability in selection during the wet season. Selection for low slopes, high tree cover, and far distance from people was consistent across populations; however, variability in selection coefficients changed as a function of the abundance of a given resource within the home range. This variability of selection coefficients could be used to improve confidence estimations for inferences drawn from habitat selection models. Quantifying functional responses in habitat selection is one way to better predict how wildlife will respond to an ever-changing environment, and they provide promising insights into the habitat selection of generalist species.