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Food habits of the farmer damselfish Stegastes nigricans inferred by stomach content, stable isotope, and fatty acid composition analyses


The territorial damselfish, Stegastes nigricans, maintains algal farms by excluding invading herbivores and weeding unpalatable algae from its territories. In Okinawa, Japan, S. nigricans farms are exclusively dominated by Polysiphonia sp., a highly digestible filamentous rhodophyte. This study was aimed at determining the diet of S. nigricans in Okinawa and its dependency on these almost-monoculture algal farms based on stomach content and chemical analyses. Stomach content analyses revealed that all available food items in the algal farms (i.e., algae, benthic animal inhabitants, trapped detritus) were contained in fish stomachs, but amorphous organic matter accounted for 68% of the contents. Therefore, carbon and nitrogen stable isotope ratios and fatty acid (FA) compositions were analyzed to trace items actually assimilated in their bodies. Stable isotope analyses showed that benthic animals were an important food source even for this farmer fish. Two essential fatty acids (EFAs), 20:4n6 and 20:5n3, which are produced only by rhodophytes among available food items, were rich in the muscle tissue of S. nigricans as well as in algal mats and detritus, suggesting that algal mats contribute EFAs to S. nigricans directly and indirectly through the food web. In conclusion, S. nigricans ingested algal mats, detritus, and benthic animals maintained within its farm. Algae and detritus were original sources of EFAs, and benthic animals, which were much more abundant in the farms than in outside territories, provided a nitrogen-rich dietary source for the fish.

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The authors deeply appreciate two anonymous reviewers to improve this manuscript much. We are grateful to International Coral Reef Research and Monitoring Center, and WWF Japan Coral Reef Conservation and Research Center in Ishigaki Island. We also thank P.L. Mfilinge (the Ryukyu University), Y. Yamada (Kitazato University), K. Suetsugu and T. Miyajima (University of the Tokyo), K. Fukuoka (Seikai National Fisheries Research Institute), T. Miller and J. Shibata (Ehime University) for helping analyses, identification, stimulating discussions on the data, and preparing manuscript. This study is supported by JSPS (Japan Society for the Promotion of Science) Research Fellowship for Young Scientist.

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Correspondence to Hiroki Hata.

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Hata, H., Umezawa, Y. Food habits of the farmer damselfish Stegastes nigricans inferred by stomach content, stable isotope, and fatty acid composition analyses. Ecol Res 26, 809–818 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11284-011-0840-5

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  • Coral reef
  • Fatty acid composition
  • Herbivory
  • Stable isotope analysis
  • Stomach contents