A jellyfish diet for the herbivorous green turtle Chelonia mydas in the temperate SW Atlantic


Feeding ecology of juvenile green turtles (Chelonia mydas) was studied from 2008 to 2011 at Samborombón Bay (35°30′–36°30′S, Argentina), combining data on digestive tract examination and stable isotope analysis through a Bayesian mixing model. We found that animal matter, in particular gelatinous plankton, was consumed in large proportions compared to herbivorous food items such as terrestrial plants and macroalgae. This diet is facilitated by the high abundance of gelatinous plankton in the region, thus confirming the adaptive foraging behaviour of the juveniles according to prey abundance in the SW Atlantic. To our knowledge, this is the first study to employ this combination of techniques and to conclusively demonstrate that animal matter, in particular gelatinous plankton, is important in the diet of the neritic green sea turtles.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Access options

Buy single article

Instant unlimited access to the full article PDF.

US$ 39.95

Price includes VAT for USA

Subscribe to journal

Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.

US$ 199

This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4


  1. Acha EM, Mianzan H, Guerrero R, Carreto J, Giberto D, Montoya N, Carignan M (2008) An overview of physical and ecological processes in the Rio de la Plata Estuary. Cont Shelf Res 28:1579–1588. doi:10.1016/j.csr.2007.01.031

  2. Alvarez Colombo G, Mianzan H, Madirolas A (2003) Acoustic characterization of gelatinous-plankton aggregations: four case studies from the Argentine continental shelf. ICES J Mar Sci 60:650–657. doi:10.1016/S1054-3139(03)00051-1

  3. Amorocho DF, Reina RD (2007) Feeding ecology of the East Pacific green sea turtle Chelonia mydas agassizii at Gorgona National Park, Colombia. Endang Species Res 3:43–51

  4. Arai MN, Welch DW, Dunsmuir AL, Jacobs MC, Ladouceur AR (2003) Digestion of pelagic Ctenophora and Cnidaria by fish. Can J Fish Aquat Sci 60:825–829. doi:10.1139/F03-071

  5. Arthur KE, Balazs GH (2008) A comparison of immature green turtles (Chelonia mydas) diets among seven sites in the main Hawaiian Islands. Pac Sci 62:205–217

  6. Arthur KE, Boyle MC, Limpus CJ (2008) Ontogenetic changes in diet and habitat use in green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) life history. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 362:303–311. doi:10.3354/meps07440

  7. Bjorndal KA (1985) Nutritional ecology of sea turtles. Copeia 3:736–751

  8. Bjorndal KA (1997) Foraging ecology and nutrition of sea turtles. In: Lutz PL, Musick JA (eds) The biology of sea turtles. CRC Press, Boca Ratón, pp 199–231

  9. Bjorndal K, Bolten A, Chaloupka M (2000) Green turtle somatic growth model: evidence for density dependence. Ecol Appl 10:269–282

  10. Bolten AB (2000) Técnicas para la medición de tortugas marinas. In: Eckert KL, Bjorndal KA, Abreu-Grobois FA, Donnelly M (eds) Técnicas de investigación y manejo para la conservación de las tortugas marinas, Grupo especialista en tortugas marinas IUCN/CSE, Publicación no. 4, pp 110–114

  11. Bolten AB (2003) Variation in sea turtle life history patterns: neritic versus oceanic developmental stages. In: Lutz PL, Musick JA, Wyneken J (eds) The biology of sea turtles. CRC Press, Boca Ratón, pp 243–257

  12. Bond AL, Diamond AW (2011) Recent Bayesian stable-isotope mixing models are highly sensitive to variation in discrimination factors. Ecol Appl 21:1017–1023

  13. Boraso A, Zaixso JM (2008) Algas marinas bentónicas. In: Boltovskoy D (ed) Atlas de sensibilidad ambiental de la costa y el Mar Argentino. Available Accessed 20 March 2013

  14. Boschi EE (1988) El ecosistema estuarial del Río de la Plata (Argentina y Uruguay). An Inst Cienc del Mar y Lomnol Univ Nal Autón México 15:159–182

  15. Botto F, Gaitán E, Mianzan H, Acha M, Giberto D, Schiariti A, Iribarne O (2011) Origin of resources and trophic pathways in a large SW Atlantic estuary: an evaluation using stable isotopes. Estuarine Coastal Shelf Sci 92:70–77. doi:10.1016/j.ecss.2010.12.014

  16. Burkholder DA, Heithaus MR, Thomson JA, Fourqurean JW (2011) Diversity in trophic interactions of green sea turtles Chelonia mydas on a relatively pristine coastal foraging ground. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 439:277–293. doi:10.3354/meps09313

  17. Cardona L, Aguilar A, Pazos L (2009) Delayed ontogenic dietary shift and high levels of omnivory in green turtles (Chelonia mydas) from the NW coast of Africa. Mar Biol 156:1487–1495. doi:10.1007/s00227-009-1188-z

  18. Cardona L, Campos P, Levy Y, Demetropoulos A, Margaritoulis D (2010) Asynchrony between dietary and nutritional shifts during the ontogeny of green turtles (Chelonia mydas) in the Mediterranean. J Exp Mar Biol Ecol 393:83–89. doi:10.1016/j.jembe.2010.07.004

  19. Cardona L, Alvarez de Quevedo I, Borrell A, Aguilar A (2012) Massive consumption of gelatinous plankton by Mediterranean apex predators. PLoS ONE 7:e31329. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0031329

  20. Caut S, Angulo E, Courchamp F (2009) Variation in discrimination factors (Δ15N and Δ13C): the effect of diet isotopic values and applications for diet reconstruction. J Appl Ecol 46:443–453. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2664.2009.01620.x

  21. Cherel Y, Hobson KA (2007) Geographical variation in carbon stable isotope signatures of marine predators: a tool to investigate their foraging areas in the Southern Ocean. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 329:281–287

  22. Corbisier TN, Soares LSH, Petti MAV, Muto EY, Silva MHC, McClelland J, Valiela I (2006) Use of isotopic signatures to assess the food web in a tropical shallow marine ecosystem of Southeastern Brazil. Aquat Ecol 40:381–390. doi:10.1007/s10452-006-9033-7

  23. Costa GC (2009) Predator size, prey size, and dietary niche breadth relationships in marine predators. Ecology 90:2014–2019. doi:10.1890/08-1150.1

  24. Dalerum F, Angerbjorn A (2005) Resolving temporal variation in vertebrate diets using naturally occurring stable isotopes. Oecologia 144:647–658. doi:10.1007/s00442-005-0118-0

  25. Dawes CJ (1986) Seasonal proximate constituents and caloric values in seagrasses and algae on the west coast of Florida. J Coastal Res 2:25–32

  26. DeNiro MJ, Epstein S (1981) Influence of diet on the distribution of nitrogen isotopes in animals. Geochim Cosmochim Acta 45:341–351

  27. Dodge KL, Logan JM, Lutcavage ME (2011) Foraging ecology of leatherback sea turtles in the Western North Atlantic determined through multi-tissue stable isotope analyses. Mar Biol 158:2813–2824. doi:10.1007/s00227-011-1780-x

  28. Doyle TK, Houghton JDR, McDevitt R, Davenport J, Hays GC (2007) The energy density of jellyfish: estimates from bomb-calorimetry and proximate-composition. J Exp Mar Biol Ecol 343:239–252. doi:10.1016/j.jembe.2006.12.010

  29. Forbes GA (2000) Muestreo y análisis de los componentes de la dieta. In: Eckert KL, Bjorndal KA, Abreu-Grobois FA, Donnelly M (eds) Técnicas de investigación y manejo para la conservación de las tortugas marinas, Grupo especialista en tortugas marinas IUCN/CSE, Publicación no. 4, pp 144–148

  30. Fossette S, Gleiss AC, Casey JP, Lewis AR, Hays GC (2011) Does prey size matter? Novel observations of feeding in the leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) allow a test of predator-prey size relationships. Biol Lett rsbl20110965. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2011.0965

  31. Frick MG, Williams KL, Pierrard L (2001) Summertime foraging and feeding by immature loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) from Georgia. Chelonian Conserv Biol 4:178–181

  32. Fuentes MMPB, Lawler IR, Gyuris E (2006) Dietary preferences of juvenile green turtles (Chelonia mydas) on a tropical reef flat. Wildl Res 33:671–678

  33. Gaitán E (2004) Distribución, abundancia y estacionalidad de Liriope tetraphylla (Hidromedusa, Traquimedusae) en el Océano Atlántico Sudoccidental y su rol ecológico en el estuario del Río de la Plata. Thesis dissertation, Mar del Plata National University, Mar del Plata

  34. Gaitán E (2012) Tramas tróficas en sistemas frontales del Mar Argentino: estructura, dinámica y complejidad analizada mediante isótopos estables. PhD thesis, Mar del Plata National University, Mar del Plata

  35. Gannes LZ, Rio CMd, Koch P (1998) Natural abundance variations in stable isotopes and their potential uses in animal physiological ecology. Comp Biochem Physiol 119A:725–737

  36. González Carman V, Alvarez K, Prosdocimi L, Inchaurraga MC, Dellacasa RF, Faiella A, Echenique C, González R, Andrejuk J, Mianzan H, Campagna C, Albareda DA (2011) Argentinian coastal waters: a temperate habitat for three species of threatened sea turtles. Mar Biol Res 7:500–508. doi:10.1080/17451000.2010.528772

  37. González Carman V, Falabella V, Maxwell S, Albareda D, Campagna C, Mianzan H (2012) Revisiting the ontogenetic shift paradigm: the case of juvenile green turtles in the SW Atlantic. J Exp Mar Biol Ecol 429:64–72. doi:10.1016/j.jembe.2012.06.007

  38. Guebert-Bartholo FM, Barletta M, Costa MF, Monteiro-Filho ELA (2011) Using gut contents to assess foraging patterns of juvenile green turtles Chelonia mydas in the Paranaguá Estuary, Brazil. Endang Species Res 13:131–143. doi:10.3354/esr00320

  39. Hatase H, Sato K, Yamaguchi M, Takahashi K, Tsukamoto K (2006) Individual variation in feeding habitat use by adult female green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas): are they obligately neritic herbivores? Oecologia 149:52–64

  40. Heaslip SG, Iverson SJ, Bowen WD, James MC (2012) Jellyfish support high energy intake of leatherback sea turtles (Dermochelys coriacea): video evidence from animal-borne cameras. PLoS ONE 7:e33259. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0033259

  41. Heithaus MR, McLash JJ, Frid A, Dill LM, Marshall GJ (2002) Novel insights into green sea turtle behaviour using animal-borne video cameras. J Mar Biol Ass UK 82:1049–1050

  42. Hobson KA (1999) Tracing origins and migration of wildlife using stable isotopes: a review. Oecologia 120:314–326

  43. Houghton JDR, Doyle TK, Wilson MW, Davenport J, Hays GC (2006) Jellyfish aggregations and leatherback turtle foraging patterns in a temperate coastal environment. Ecology 87:1967–1972

  44. Hyslop EJ (1980) Stomach contents analysis-a review of methods and their application. J Fish Biol 17:41–429

  45. Inger R, Jackson A, Parnell AC, Bearhop S (2010) SIAR V4: stable isotope analysis in R. An Ecologist’s guide. Available via: Accessed 20 March 2013

  46. James MC, Ottensmeyer CA, Myers RA (2005) Identification of high-use habitat and threats to leatherback sea turtles in northern waters: new directions for conservation. Ecol Lett 8:195–201. doi:10.1111/j.1461-0248.2004.00710.x

  47. Kokelj F, Mianzan H, Avian M, Burnett J (1993) Dermatitis due to Olindias sambaquiensis: a case report. Cutis 51:339–342

  48. Lemons G, Lewison R, Komoroske L, Gaos A, Lai CT, Dutton P, Eguchi T, LeRoux R, Seminoff JA (2011) Trophic ecology of green sea turtles in a highly urbanized bay: insights from stable isotopes and mixing models. J Exp Mar Biol Ecol 405:25–32. doi:10.1016/j.jembe.2011.05.012

  49. López-Mendilaharsu M, Estrades A, Caraccio MN, Calvo V, Hernández M, Quirici V (2006) Biología, ecología y etología de las tortugas marinas en la zona costera uruguaya. In: Menafra R, Rodríguez-Gallego L, Scarabino F, Conde D (eds) Bases para la conservación y el manejo de la costa uruguaya. Vida Silvestre Uruguay, Montevideo, pp 247–257

  50. Mariscal R (1974) Nematocysts. In: Musatine L, Lenhoff H (eds) Coelenterate biology: reviews and new perspectives. Academic Press, New York, pp 129–178

  51. McClellan CM, Braun-McNeill J, Avens L, Wallace BP, Read AJ (2010) Stable isotopes confirm a foraging dichotomy in juvenile loggerhead sea turtles. J Exp Mar Biol Ecol 387:44–51. doi:10.1016/j.jembe.2010.02.020

  52. McCullagh P, Nelder JA (1989) Generalized linear models. Chapman & Hall, CRC, Boca Ratón

  53. Mianzan HW, Guerrero RA (2000) Environmental patterns and biomass distribution of gelatinous macrozooplankton. Three study cases in the South-western Atlantic Ocean. Sci Mar 64:215–224

  54. Mianzan HW, Mari N, Prenski B, Sanchez F (1996) Fish predation on neritic ctenophores from the Argentine continental shelf: a neglected food resource? Fish Res 27:69–79

  55. Mianzan HW, Sorarrain D, Burnett JW, Lutz LL (2000) Mucocutaneous junctional and flexural paresthesias caused by the holoplanktonic trachymedusa Liriope tetraphylla. Dermatology 201:46–48. doi:10.1159/000018429

  56. Mianzan HW, Pájaro M, Colombo GA, Madirolas A (2001a) Feeding on survival-food: gelatinous plankton as a source of food for anchovies. Hydrobiologia 451:45–53

  57. Mianzan HW, Lasta C, Acha E, Guerrero R, Macchi G, Bremec C (2001b) The Rio de la Plata Estuary, Argentina-Uruguay. Ecol Stud 144:185–204

  58. Nagaoka S, Martins A, Santos R, Tognella M, Oliveira Filho E, Seminoff JA (2012) Diet of juvenile green turtles (Chelonia mydas) associating with artisanal fishing traps in a subtropical estuary in Brazil. Mar Biol 159:573–589. doi:10.1007/s00227-011-1836-y

  59. Pajuelo M, Bjorndal K, Reich K, Arendt M, Bolten A (2012) Distribution of foraging habitats of male loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta) as revealed by stable isotopes and satellite telemetry. Mar Biol 159:1255–1267. doi:10.1007/s00227-012-1906-9

  60. Parnell AC, Inger R, Bearhop S, Jackson AL (2010) Source partitioning using stable isotopes: coping with too much variation. PLoS ONE 5:e9672. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0009672

  61. Peterson BJ, Fry B (1987) Stable isotopes in ecosystem studies. Annu Rev Ecol Syst 18:293–320

  62. Phillips DL (2001) Mixing models in analyses of diet using multiple stable isotopes: a critique. Oecologia 127:166–170. doi:10.1007/s004420000571

  63. Phillips DL, Gregg JW (2003) Source partitioning using stable isotopes: coping with too many sources. Oecologia 136:261–269. doi:10.1007/s00442-003-1218-3

  64. Pinkas L, Oliphant MS, Iverson ILK (1971) Food habits of albacore, bluefin tuna, and bonito in California waters. Fish Bull 152:1–105

  65. Post DM (2002) Using stable isotopes to estimate trophic position: models, methods and assumptions. Ecology 83:703–718

  66. Post DM, Layman CA, Arrington DA, Takimoto G, Quattrochi J, Montaña CG (2007) Getting to the fat of the matter: models, methods and assumptions for dealing with lipids in stable isotope analyses. Oecologia 152:179–189. doi:10.1007/s00442-006-0630-x

  67. Quiñones J, González Carman V, Zeballos J, Purca S, Mianzan H (2010) Effects of El Niño-driven environmental variability on black turtle migration to Peruvian foraging grounds. Hydrobiologia 645:69–79. doi:10.1007/s10750-010-0225-8

  68. R Development Core Team (2013) R: a language and environment for statistical computing. R Foundation for Statistical Computing, Vienna, Austria. Available via: Accessed 20 March 2013

  69. Reich KJ, Bjorndal KA, Bolten AB (2007) The ‘lost years’ of green turtles: using stable isotopes to study cryptic life stages. Biol Lett 3:712–714. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2007.0394

  70. Reich KJ, Bjorndal KA, Martínez del Rio C (2008) Effects of growth and tissue type on the kinetics of 13C and 15N incorporation in a rapidly growing ectotherm. Oecologia 155:651–663. doi:10.1007/s00442-007-0949-y

  71. Rodriguez Graña L, Calliari D, Conde D, Sellanes J, Urrutia R (2008) Food web of a SW Atlantic shallow coastal lagoon: spatial environmental variability does not impose substantial changes in the trophic structure. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 362:69–83. doi:10.3354/meps07401

  72. Russell DJ, Hargrove S, Balazs GH (2011) Marine sponges, other animal food, and nonfood items found in digestive tracts of the herbivorous marine turtle Chelonia mydas in Hawaii. Pac Sci 65:375–381

  73. Santos RG, Martins AS, Farias JdN, Horta PA, Pinheiro HT, Torezani E, Baptistotte C, Seminoff JA, Balazs GH, Work TM (2011) Coastal habitat degradation and green sea turtle diets in Southeastern Brazil. Mar Pollut Bull 62:1297–1302. doi:10.1016/j.marpolbul.2011.03.004

  74. Schiariti A (2008) Historia de vida y dinámica de poblaciones de Lychnorhiza lucerna (Scyphozoa). ¿Un recurso pesquero alternativo? PhD Thesis, Buenos Aires University, Buenos Aires

  75. Schiariti A, Berasategui A, Giberto D, Guerrero R, Acha E, Mianzan H (2006) Living in the front: Neomysis americana (Mysidacea) in the Río de la Plata estuary, Argentina-Uruguay. Mar Biol 149:483–489. doi:10.1007/s00227-006-0248-x

  76. Seminoff JA, Resendiz A, Nichols WJ (2002) Diet of East Pacific green turtles (Chelonia mydas) in the central Gulf of California, Mexico. J Herpetol 36:447–453

  77. Seminoff JA, Jones TT, Eguchi T, Jones DR, Dutton PH (2006) Stable isotope discrimination (δ13C and δ15N) between soft tissues of the green sea turtle Chelonia mydas and its diet. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 308:271–278

  78. Seminoff JA, Bjorndal KA, Bolten AB (2007) Stable carbon and nitrogen isotope discrimination and turnover in pond sliders Trachemys scripta: insights for trophic study of freshwater turtles. Copeia 2007:534–542

  79. Snover ML, Hohn AA, Crowder LB, Macko SA (2010) Combining stable isotopes and skeletal growth marks to detect habitat shifts in juvenile loggerhead sea turtles Caretta caretta. Endang Species Res 13:25–31. doi:10.3354/esr00311

  80. Sorarrain DR (1998) Cambios estacionales en la biomasa de organismos gelatinosos en relación con otros zoopláncteres en la Bahía Samborombón. Thesis dissertation, Mar del Plata National University, Mar del Plata

  81. Tieszen LL, Boutton TW, Tesdahl KG, Slade NA (1983) Fractionation and turnover of stable carbon isotopes in animal tissues: implications for 13C analysis of diet. Oecologia 57:32–37

  82. Van Nierop MM, Den Hartog FC (1984) A study on the gut contents of five juvenile loggerhead turtles, Caretta caretta (Linnaeus) (Reptilia, Cheloniidae), from the south-eastern part of the north Atlantic ocean, with emphasis on coelentera identification. Zool Meded 59:35–53

  83. Vander Zanden HB, Bjorndal KA, Mustin W, Ponciano JM, Bolten AB (2012) Inherent variation in stable isotope values and discrimination factors in two life stages of green turtles. Physiol Biochem Zool 85:431–441. doi:10.1086/666902

  84. Werner EE, Gilliam JF (1984) The ontogenetic niche and species interactions in size-structured populations. Annu Rev Ecol Syst 15:393–425

  85. Zar JH (1996) Biostatistical analysis. Prentice Hall, New Jersey

Download references


Access to study animals was kindly facilitated by the Regional Program for Sea Turtle Research and Conservation of Argentina (PRICTMA) and the laboratory facilities by the National Institute for Fisheries Research and Development (INIDEP) and the Mar del Plata National University. The wildlife agencies of Buenos Aires province and the National Wildlife Agency of Argentina issued permits and supported our research. We would like to thank Ignacio Bruno for his assistance during fieldwork and laboratory activities. We are also grateful to the fishermen from San Clemente del Tuyú that provided information and collaborated with the program. We appreciate the advice given by Dr. Gabriel Genzano, Dr. Diego Giberto, Dr. Hugo Benavidez, Dr. Daniel Hernandez, Dr. Shaleyla Kelez, Dr. Paulo Barata and Dr. Andrew Parnell, regarding the species identification, the stable isotope analysis and the statistical approach used. Funding was provided by the Buenos Aires Zoo to DA, the Wildlife Conservation Society, Fondo para la Conservación Ambiental from Banco Galicia, the FONCyT PICT 1553, and the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research (IAI) CRN 2076 sponsored by the US National Science Foundation grant GEO-0452325 to HM. VGC is supported by scholarship from CONICET. This study adhered to the legal requirements of Argentina and to all institutional guidelines. This is INIDEP contribution no. 1842.

Author information

Correspondence to Victoria González Carman.

Additional information

Communicated by R. Lewison.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

González Carman, V., Botto, F., Gaitán, E. et al. A jellyfish diet for the herbivorous green turtle Chelonia mydas in the temperate SW Atlantic. Mar Biol 161, 339–349 (2014).

Download citation


  • Macroalgae
  • Stable Isotope Analysis
  • Green Turtle
  • Discrimination Factor
  • Ontogenetic Shift