Foraging ecology of leatherback sea turtles in the Western North Atlantic determined through multi-tissue stable isotope analyses
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- Dodge, K.L., Logan, J.M. & Lutcavage, M.E. Mar Biol (2011) 158: 2813. doi:10.1007/s00227-011-1780-x
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Leatherback turtles, Dermochelys coriacea, are highly migratory, spending most of their lives submerged or offshore where their feeding habits are difficult to observe. In order to elucidate the foraging ecology of leatherbacks off Massachusetts, USA, stable isotope analyses were performed on leatherback tissues and prey collected from 2005 to 2009. Stable isotope ratios of nitrogen and carbon were determined in whole blood, red blood cells, blood plasma, muscle, liver, and skin from adult male, female, and subadult leatherbacks. Isotopic values were analyzed by body size (curved carapace length) and grouped by sex, and groups were tested for dietary differences. Gelatinous zooplankton samples were collected from leatherback foraging grounds using surface dip nets and stratified net tows, and prey contribution to leatherback diet was estimated using a two-isotope Bayesian mixing model. Skin and whole blood δ13C values and red blood cell δ15N values were correlated with body size, while δ13C values of red blood cells, whole blood, and blood plasma differed by sex. Mixing model results suggest that leatherbacks foraging off Massachusetts primarily consume the scyphozoan jellyfishes, Cyanea capillata and Chrysaora quinquecirrha, and ctenophores, while a smaller proportion of their diet comes from holoplanktonic salps and sea butterflies (Cymbuliidae). Our results are consistent with historical observations of leatherback turtles feeding on scyphozoan prey in this region and offer new insight into size- and sex-related differences in leatherback diet.