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In my fantasy world, I have created a sentient species descended from an arboreal felid (it evolved to eat squrriels and small monkeys). They are my elves. The one problem is that I want them to be herbivores. So I would like someone to help me figure out why a carnivore descendant would do this. This world has natural magic, which sort of radiates from magical sources such as mana springs and arcanacrystals) so feel free to use that in your answer.

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    $\begingroup$ Your gonna have a hard time, felids are not just carnivores they are hyper-carnivores. Its like asking how easy is it to evolve a herbivorous shark. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Dec 4 '18 at 20:43
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    $\begingroup$ Why do some humans who are natural omnivores choose to become vegetarians and vegans? Because with intelligence comes ethics and some of us think it is wrong to kill and eat thinking creatures. $\endgroup$ Dec 4 '18 at 21:21
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    $\begingroup$ @TonyDallimore people who are rich beyond the wildest dreams of Croesus can be More Moral Than Thou because of the hard work of omnivores who drink Bud Light. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Dec 4 '18 at 21:26
  • $\begingroup$ @rek your edit doesn't clarify the title. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Dec 4 '18 at 21:27
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    $\begingroup$ @TonyDallimore Are you sure that's true? Meat is expensive, but it also has a lot of calories, protein, fat, and other stuff your body needs. Getting the equivalent in vegetables would also be expensive. $\endgroup$
    – user91988
    Dec 4 '18 at 22:05

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You could start with the panda pattern. Giant pandas are carnivores which have adapted an all vegetarian diet. Your elves are also pandalike fallen carnivores.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giant_panda

Despite its taxonomic classification as a carnivoran, the giant panda's diet is primarily herbivorous, consisting almost exclusively of bamboo. However, the giant panda still has the digestive system of a carnivore, as well as carnivore-specific genes, and thus derives little energy and little protein from consumption of bamboo. Its ability to digest cellulose is ascribed to the microbes in its gut. Pandas are born with sterile intestines and require bacteria obtained from their mother's feces to digest vegetation. The giant panda is a "highly specialized" animal with "unique adaptations", and has lived in bamboo forests for millions of years. The average giant panda eats as much as 9 to 14 kg (20 to 30 lb) of bamboo shoots a day to compensate for the limited energy content of its diet. Ingestion of such a large quantity of material is possible because of the rapid passage of large amounts of indigestible plant material through the short, straight digestive tract. It is also noted, however, that such rapid passage of digesta limits the potential of microbial digestion in the gastrointestinal tract, limiting alternative forms of digestion. Given this voluminous diet, the giant panda defecates up to 40 times a day.[56] The limited energy input imposed on it by its diet has affected the panda's behavior. The giant panda tends to limit its social interactions and avoids steeply sloping terrain to limit its energy expenditures.

Your elves would eat all the time and be large, sluggish, antisocial and productive of large quantities of splintery feces. That is pretty much elves, I think.

Pandas just stumbled into the bamboo forest and started eating. The bamboo probably does not get much from the deal. I think if your elves are intelligent it offers another more conventionally elvish property. These elves are gardeners in the manner of the acacia tree ants.

https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/11/131106-ants-tree-acacia-food-mutualism/

Trees Trap Ants Into Sweet Servitude A sip of nectar enslaves ants to the trees they guard.

The elves grow and protect the trees, and in return the trees give them leaves and sugar. Like the ants, the elves are totally addicted to the leaves and sugar from this particular tree and so must carry supplies with if they travel. Fortunately the sugar and leaves ferment very well, providing concentrated calories and thus even though the elves are large, sluggish and antisocial the elf liquor helps them overcome this with wild dancing and parties.

The drink is also addictive to nonelves. If humans partake, they might find themselves dancing at an elf party until the drink runs out. That takes a long time.

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    $\begingroup$ "Your elves would eat all the time and be large, sluggish, antisocial and productive of large quantities of splintery feces. That is pretty much elves, I think." Pure. Gold. $\endgroup$
    – ckersch
    Dec 4 '18 at 20:38
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    $\begingroup$ keep in mind most bears are omnivores, while felids are hyper-carnivores. You will need more intermediary steps. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Dec 4 '18 at 20:44
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    $\begingroup$ One thing to keep in mind for this answer is that herbivores are often less intelligent than their carnivorous or omnivorous counterparts, because intelligence is costly and plants provide less energy, and also because you don't need to outsmart a plant to eat it. While carnivorous species can go herbivorous, you're going to need another mechanism if you want them to become more intelligent at the same time. $\endgroup$ Dec 5 '18 at 6:39
  • $\begingroup$ The mechanism I was going to use for their intellegence is that they would have to outsmart their predators to survive. $\endgroup$ Dec 5 '18 at 20:18
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The Carnivore Energy Trap

The problem with being a Carnivore is that meat is energy dense, and more readily digested.

Whether they hunt small or large prey, it means that they have to hunt fewer times, which is a great cost saving in time and energy. They can have smaller more streamlined digestive systems which takes less space, weighs less, and consumes less energy. These cost savings allow for a host of other adaptations that make them better hunters.

These adaptations also make existing on other food much harder. The streamlined gut reduces the nutrition extractable from less easily digested foods. Hunting adaptations cost energy and offer little benefit when browsing for vegetation. In short, trying to become a herbivore again, requires sacrificing on what is easy.

Ways out of the trap

Survival.

Those that are alive, are those that found a way to survive where others didn't. Congratulations your felids were the ones that didn't die.

They did it by changing their behaviours, and adapting. The first of the omnivours identified a relatively nutritious plant/plant parts. This could have been fruit. They gained access because they were more than scary enough to displace any other herbivore. Eventually the range of nutritious plants broadened as they adapted to eat harder food stuffs.

Intelligence.

At some point your felids became intelligent. If they were moderately intelligent earlier in their omnivore days it would be better, but any point would do well - except already being 100% herbivores. The intelligence required is not counting, language, or anything terribly complicated. I'm talking about the intelligence required to work with fire, and specifically how to cook with it.

It would have had a similar effect for them as it did for us humans. Suddenly inedible foods are now safe, and nutritious.

As to why fire did not herald a new age of predatory behaviour is going to be a tough sell though. Fire opens a lot of door-ways including weapons, and improved hunting tactics.

Either have all the mega-fauna be extinct, or make it so that mega-fauna are quite powerful. I'm thinking dragon class here. Very difficult to kill, very likely to wipe out entire clans, almost impervious to sharp weapons, ignorant of fire, and foul tasting (even when cooked).

As for other smaller prey, make them scarce, or make them exceptionally hard to hunt even with advanced tools and fire.

You will have a few still hunting but the art will slowly fade from the culture as more and more individuals support themselves by gathering and eventually farming.

At the same time have fire open up even better tasting, and nutritious plants.

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    $\begingroup$ The dragon-class megafauna reminded me of a specific creature from Schlock Mercenary that has bones made of metallic glasses and blood filled with aluminum and nanites that electroplate your insides. The amateur xenobiologist mentioned that cooking the beast would make it even more poisonous to humans. $\endgroup$
    – Cyan_Cap
    Sep 23 '20 at 21:25
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The change from carnivorous to herbivorous is not likely to happen quickly. For example, it would be unlikely for intelligent carnivores to just choose to go vegetarian as they wouldn't have an even approximately appropriate digestive system. You would end up with a bunch of sickly, lethargic and grumpy Elves.

What could happen would be a gradual evolutionary change from carnivore to herbivore - more likely if they were already partially omnivorous. This could be due to environmental pressures. For example, repeated boom/bust in squirrel population means that only the more omnivorous felids survive periods of starvation. Then either some environmental disaster totally devastates the squirrel (and monkey) population so felids go totally vegetarian, or now social/religious/ethical drives could push them in that direction.

As a real-world example, consider bears - polar bears are almost totally carnivore; pandas are totally herbivore; but they both descend from the same ancestral proto-bear.

But you are probably needing many thousands of years (possibly up to millions) for this to happen.

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Farming and direct choice

It is a lot easier to farm plants than it is to farm animals, and easier to store them as well. You don't have to feed the dried apples you have in your storehouse over the winter. Cattle still have to be fed, which means you're growing and storing the food anyway.

Instead of evolving this way, your elves deliberately chose this path. While they may have been carnivores or partial omnivores, they steered their culture towards farming - And while obligate carnivores require meat, your elves were able to harness the nature magic to change their whole physiology to accept and thrive on plants - And to have those plants produce more and better nutrients. This is why elvish travel bread is so good for its size.

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The Elves evolved from arboreal felids to herbivores due to a combination of their intelligence, dwindling food supply, gut bacteria, and culture. The primeval elf was a highly intelligent tool user that hunted the other arboreal creatures to near extinction. Their use of pack tactics, tools (spears, bow/arrow, etc), and high intelligence allowed them to continue constantly increasing in number past what their food supply could sustain by becoming more and more efficient at hunting the remaining animals. When the tree-dwelling animals were hunted to near extinction they moved to consume land-based animals which they also drove to near extinction.

When the great famine finally came it was vicious, the Elves would kill and eat anything that moved and would devour every portion, skin organs, everything. They had taken to the practice of eating any animals they caught immediately, raw and whole to prevent the food from being stolen by fellow elves. This was the beginning of the turn around for the elven race. By eating the stomachs and intestines of herbivores raw they incorporated the gut bacteria of their victims with their own and were able to a limited extent able to start effectively digesting the abundant fruits in the area.

Over time the elves evolved to be able to handle a fully plant-based diet via natural selection while the animal populations in the areas they lived in recovered. The elves never forgot this part of their legacy which they carried on via oral tradition for hundreds of years which shaped their culture into one that strives to this day to live in a sustainable equilibrium with nature.

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  • $\begingroup$ So in your case the evolution is mostly about who adapts better to the new gut bacteria, which means that infant elves should eat the poop of their parents to pass on their gut bacteria down the line like Panda Bears do right? $\endgroup$
    – draconk
    Dec 5 '18 at 8:15
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    $\begingroup$ Oh definitely. There was probably a good period when the adults could just bearly digest plant matter but it made perfect baby food for the wee little tikes. $\endgroup$ Dec 5 '18 at 15:29
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Some cats are mostly vegetarian. Dried cat food is 70% grain. With a bit of meat flavouring they like it enough.

Meat diets requires far more land per person than vegetarian. So resource limitations would put pressure to do more with less. A push factor.

Any civilisation forms after they can generate food surpluses, freeing up labour for other things, like war, religion, building wagons. These are pull factors for eating vegetarian diets.

And an event could precipitate the change, a volcano blocking the sun for a year, forced them to conserve food by adding plant matter. Afterwards, no one got hurt and it was cheaper. Poorer families kept eating veggies with their meat.

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  • $\begingroup$ Vegetables are low in taurine, an sulfonic acid. Cats, unlike most mammals, have lost the ability to synthase taurine. Dry cat food is fortified with taurine during manufacture. $\endgroup$
    – CSM
    Dec 5 '18 at 13:02
  • $\begingroup$ @CSM You can handwave the discovery (or elf-magic creation) of taurine-rich plants. $\endgroup$
    – StephenS
    Feb 13 '20 at 0:42
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Well it's simple. Just because they only have pointy teeth does not mean they can't eat plants.

Ask any pet owner. Some cats, and all dogs, will eat mostly anything that we can eat. Yet, officially, they are carnivores.

In the wild, a decrease in the amount of available prey coupled with an abundance of plant food translates into evolutionary pressure towards onivorism, which if continued for long can lead to herbivorism. This has happened more times than we can count on Earth. Of special notice are birds: parrots, humming birds and toucans all share a common ancestor with all other birds, which is believed to have been a carnivore theropod.

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The big problem for your elves is taurine, arginine, and various other nutrients that plants don't provide and they can't synthesize. Mutations might be possible to allow synthesis.

Another possibility is that they turn herbivorous when they have a degree of intelligence. In particular, they can use fire. (Possibly not make it, but use it.) Cooking food increases the availability and ease of digestion of nutrients, thus allowing them to sustain a higher energy lifestyle on lower quality plant food.

Perhaps as they grew more intelligent they devised ways to cook up the nutrients that they can't find naturally occurring in plants.

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You are What You Eat:

I have a couple of ways I can see that wouldn't require radical biological changes for you species to become (on the surface) herbivores, but it may require some flexibility with definitions.

  • Symbiosis: Your species has co-evolved with small intestinal organisms, once a free-living creature but now an obligate symbiote. The host evolved a second stomach where these creatures now live. The hosts eat the food for the symbiote, and the symbiote has to do nothing to survive. They shed eggs which are everywhere in the host environment. The symbiotes either die or are pushed out into the second (true) stomach of the host and are digested. While the host is still capable of eating meat, it doesn't need to.
  • Choice and selection: The elves made an ethical decision to abandon flesh, but they are brilliant biologists. They cultured, engineered, and selected for plants high in protein (and complete protein at that) and easily digestible. Their trees produce fruits and nuts, their mushrooms are as rich as steak. These organisms require great care and maintenance, but provide everything they need. Who needs dead animal when your food is already like meat?
  • They don't know it's animal (or it's technically a protist...): Everything the elves eat is cultured with an ameboid organism the elves spread to all their food. These tiny animal-like organisms eat all the fruit and vegetables, leading to either a nutritious liquid (call it nectar) or a dried flakey protein-filled residue (ambrosia?). They cook it, eat it raw, whatever. They spread it like sourdough.
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We actually descend from similar species, since primates come from the Eutheria too https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eutheria small carnivores/insectivores.

Research shows that our specie's brain developped thanks to hominids eating marrow and that that makes us omnivores, but that is not the only source of fat. You can find all 3 fatty acids necessary for humans (and fundamental in brain development) in plants too.

So what you haveto do is put them in a bioma where the right kind of plants are more abondant than fish or mammals.

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