How does pattern of feeding and rate of nutrient delivery influence conditioned food preferences?
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Ruminant herbivores have been shown to learn about food properties by associating food flavours with the food’s post-ingestive consequences. Previous experimentation supporting the conditioned food aversion/preference hypothesis has generally employed very simple diet learning tasks which do not effectively represent the wide range of foods selected within single bouts typical of wild, free ranging ruminant herbivores. We tested the ability of a ruminant herbivore to associate a food with artifcially administered nutrient rewards in a designed experiment where we altered the temporal pattern of encounter with the food as well as the nature (fast or slow reward) of the postingestive outcome. Twenty-four goats were offered branches of Sitka spruce (SS) and Norway spruce (NS) for 4 h per day on two days per week for five weeks. The pattern of feeding varied with treatment such that the species on offer changed every hour (short) or every 2 h (long). The energy treatment altered the reward delivered during Sitka consumption so that animals were dosed either with predominantly sugar (rapidly fermented), predominantly starch (slower fermentation rate), or with water (placebo). Preference was measured on the day following each learning day. We expected that goats would found it easier to associate SS with post-ingestive rewards when the duration of encounter was longest, and that associations would be stronger with the most rapidly digested post-ingestive reward. In the event, goats did not alter their consumption of SS in response to the treatments. Our results suggest that at the scale of temporal resolution of encounters with different plant species (1–2 h), and at the different rates of experiencing post-ingestive consequences tested in this experiment, ruminants do not appear to discriminate the nutritive properties of foods predominantly through a postingestive feedback mechanism. They must, instead, use a range of cues—including post-ingestive consequences—to assess food properties