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Foraging consistency of coral reef fishes across environmental gradients in the central Pacific


We take advantage of a natural gradient of human exploitation and oceanic primary production across five central Pacific coral reefs to examine foraging patterns in common coral reef fishes. Using stomach content and stable isotope (δ15N and δ13C) analyses, we examined consistency across islands in estimated foraging patterns. Surprisingly, species within the piscivore–invertivore group exhibited the clearest pattern of foraging consistency across all five islands despite there being a considerable difference in mean body mass (14 g–1.4 kg) and prey size (0.03–3.8 g). In contrast, the diets and isotopic values of the grazer–detritivores varied considerably and exhibited no consistent patterns across islands. When examining foraging patterns across environmental contexts, we found that δ15N values of species of piscivore–invertivore and planktivore closely tracked gradients in oceanic primary production; again, no comparable patterns existed for the grazer–detritivores. The inter-island consistency in foraging patterns within the species of piscivore–invertivore and planktivore and the lack of consistency among species of grazer–detritivores suggests a linkage to different sources of primary production among reef fish functional groups. Our findings suggest that piscivore–invertivores and planktivores are likely linked to well-mixed and isotopically constrained allochthonous oceanic primary production, while grazer–detritivores are likely linked to sources of benthic primary production and autochthonous recycling. Further, our findings suggest that species of piscivore–invertivore, independent of body size, converge toward consuming low trophic level prey, with a hypothesized result of reducing the number of steps between trophic levels and increasing the trophic efficiency at a community level.

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This work was conducted with the support of the Moore Family Foundation and several donors to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. We thank the Republic of Kiribati, Environment and Conservation Division and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for permission to complete this work. For logistical support we thank the officers and crew of the M/V Hanse Explorer and the staff of the Nature Conservancy at Palmyra Atoll. We thank Zach Caldwell, Joe Laughlin, Kyle Koyanagi, and Stephan Charrette for invaluable assistance in the field and Bruce Deck and Brice Semmens for assistance with stable isotope sample preparation, analysis, and insightful discussions.

Author information

BJZ and SAS conceived and designed the project. BJZ and SAS led logistical efforts for research expeditions. BJZ, SLH, and SAS carried out field collections. BJZ and EGC led dissection and sample processing efforts. BJZ, MDF, RHM, and LSK performed stable isotope analysis. BJZ, GJW, YE, and SAS performed statistical analyses. BJZ, GJW, and SAS wrote the manuscript; other authors provided insights and editorial advice throughout the development and completion of the manuscript.

Correspondence to Brian J. Zgliczynski.

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Communicated by Deron E. Burkepile.

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Zgliczynski, B.J., Williams, G.J., Hamilton, S.L. et al. Foraging consistency of coral reef fishes across environmental gradients in the central Pacific. Oecologia 191, 433–445 (2019).

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  • Fishes
  • Foraging
  • Trophic
  • Stomach contents
  • Isotopes
  • Primary production