Behavioral Ecology


, Volume 153, Issue 4, pp 1021-1030

First online:

Foraging behavior by Daphnia in stoichiometric gradients of food quality

  • Greg S. SchatzAffiliated withEcology and Evolutionary Biology Group, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Calgary
  • , Edward McCauleyAffiliated withEcology and Evolutionary Biology Group, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Calgary Email author 

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Mismatches in the elemental composition of herbivores and their resources can impact herbivore growth and reproduction. In aquatic systems, the ratio of elements, such as C, P, and N, is used to characterize the food quality of algal prey. For example, large increases in the C:P ratio of edible algae can decrease rates of growth and reproduction in Daphnia. Current theory emphasizes that Daphnia utilize only assimilation and respiration processes to maintain an optimal elemental composition, yet studies of terrestrial herbivores implicate behavioral processes in coping with local variation in food quality. We tested the ability of juvenile and adult Daphnia to locate regions of high-quality food within a spatial gradient of algal prey differing in C:P ratio, while holding food density constant over space. Both juveniles and adults demonstrated similar behavior by quickly locating (i.e., <10 min) the region of high food quality. Foraging paths were centred on regions of high food quality and these differed significantly from paths of individuals exposed to a homogeneous environment of both food density and food quality. Ingestion rate experiments on algal prey of differing stoichiometric ratio show that individuals can adjust their intake rate over fast behavioral time-scales, and we use these data to examine how individuals choose foraging locations when presented with a spatial gradient that trades off food quality and food quantity. Daphnia reared under low food quality conditions chose to forage in regions of high food quality even though they could attain the same C ingestion rate elsewhere along a spatial gradient. We argue that these aspects of foraging behavior by Daphnia have important implications for how these herbivores manage their elemental composition and our understanding of the dynamics of these herbivore–plant systems in lakes and ponds where spatial variation in food quality is present.


Foraging behavior Stoichiometry Spatial gradients Food quality Daphnia