Niche expansion, body size, and survival in Galápagos marine iguanas
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Foraging theory predicts that dietary niche breadth should expand as resource availability decreases. However, Galápagos marine iguanas often die during algae shortages (El Niños) although land plants abound where they rest and reproduce. On Seymour Norte island, a subpopulation of iguanas exhibited unique foraging behavior: they consistently included the succulent beach plant B. maritima in their diet. We investigated the consequences of land-plant feeding for body size and survival. Batis-eaters supplemented their algae diet both before and after intertidal zone foraging, and more Batis was eaten during tides unfavorable for intertidal zone foraging (dawn and dusk). Larger, energy-constrained iguanas fed more on land than did smaller animals. Compared to intertidal zone algae, Batis was 39% lower in caloric content (1.6 vs. 2.6 kcal g–1 dry mass), 56% lower in protein (8.3 vs. 18.9% dry mass) and 57% lower in nitrogen (1.3 vs. 3.0% dry mass). In spite of its lower nutrient value, iguanas that supplemented their diet with this plant were able to attain nearly twice the body size of other iguanas on the island. Age estimates indicate that many Batis-eaters survived repeated El Niño episodes during which animals of their relative size-class experienced high mortality on other islands. The larger animals were, however, completely dependent upon this supplementary source of food to maintain condition, and all perished in the 1997–1998 El Niño when high tides inundated and killed Batis on Seymour Norte Island. We hypothesize that Batis feeding developed as a local foraging tradition, and that dietary conservatism and strong foraging site fidelity explain why the inclusion of land plants in the diet has been observed in only a single population. Ultimately, a unique algae-adapted hindgut morphology and physiology may limit a switch from marine to terrestrial diet.
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