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Abstract

Cotton rats live in oldfields, habitats with a variety of mostly herbaceous plants. Based on other studies, the hispid cotton rat, Sigmodon hispidus, eats many kinds of herbaceous plants but grasses predominate. In contrast, our population of cotton rats ate many monocots but mostly they were not grasses. Our study sought to determine the diet of the cotton rat in eastern Virginia, near the northern limit of distribution on the Atlantic Coast. Fecal samples, collected each month during an on-going capture-mark-release demographic study of the rodent community, were analyzed using a standard method. A greater variety of foods (including insects) was eaten in the summer and autumn than in winter and spring. In winter, when much herbaceous vegetation is standing dead, cotton rats supplemented their diets with pine bark. Cotton rats ate significantly greater proportions of monocots in winter and spring, an apparent response to the need for more calories to compensate for greater heat loss. In summer and autumn, cotton rats enhanced their diets with significantly greater proportions of the more nutritious but harder to digest dicots. Reproductive females ate significantly more dicots and less monocots than males and non-reproductive females, whose diets were similar.

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