Network analyses support the role of prey preferences in shaping resource use patterns within five animal populations
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Individual variation is an inherent aspect of animal populations and understanding the mechanisms shaping resource use patterns within populations is crucial to comprehend how individuals partition resources. Theory predicts that differences in prey preferences among consumers and/or differences in the likelihood of adding new resources to their diets are key mechanisms underlying intrapopulation variation in resource use. We developed network models based on optimal diet theory that simulate how individuals consume resources under varying scenarios of individual variation in prey preferences and in the willingness of consuming alternate resources. We then investigated how the structure of individual-resource networks generated under each model compared to the structure of observed networks representing five classical examples of individual diet variation. Our results support the notion that, for the studied populations, individual variation in prey preferences is the major factor explaining patterns in individual-resource networks. In contrast, variation in the willingness of adding prey does not seem to play an important role in shaping patterns of resource use. Individual differences in prey preferences in the studied populations may be generated by complex behavioral rules related to cognitive constraints and experience. Our approach provides a pathway for mapping foraging models into network patterns, which may allow determining the possible mechanisms leading to variation in resource use within populations.