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Latitudinal and ontogenetic variation in the diet of a pelagic mesopredator (Pomatomus saltatrix), assessed with a classification tree analysis


Pelagic mesopredators are abundant in many marine ecosystems and exert strong top-down influence on food webs. We explored the dietary niche of Pomatomus saltatrix in eastern Australia, using a classification tree analysis to identify key factors driving diet variation. P. saltatrix was shown to be an opportunistic generalist predator which exhibited increased baitfish consumption, and decreased crustacean consumption, with increasing size. The classification tree analysis showed that body size and latitude had the greatest influence on the diet of P. saltatrix, with significant ontogenetic diet shifts occurring at 8 and 30 cm fork length (FL). While piscivory is evident in the majority of P. saltatrix diets by ~8 cm FL, crustaceans are almost entirely absent from the diet after ~30 cm FL. The importance of latitude was likely related to the broad-scale oceanography in the study region, including the East Australian Current and its separation from the continental shelf. The classification tree analysis is a powerful framework for identifying important variables in diet composition.

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Thanks to Petra Kuhnert (CSIRO) for providing the R ‘diet’ package. The work was funded by the Australian Research Council and the NSW Recreational Fishing Trust. Special thanks to Australian Surfcaster and Ben van der Woude for donating large numbers of fish. This is manuscript number 204 from the Sydney Institute of Marine Science.

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Correspondence to Hayden T. Schilling.

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All authors declared they have no conflict of interest.


This work was funded by an Australian Research Council Linkage Project (LP150100923) and the NSW Recreational Fishing Trust. HTS was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.

Ethical approval

This research was approved by the NSW Department of Primary Industries Fisheries Ethics Committee (ACEC# 14/14) and fish were collected under a NSW DPI Scientific Collection Permit (P03/0086(F)-8.1).

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Reviewed by M. J. Kingsford.

Responsible Editor: K. D. Clements.

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Schilling, H.T., Hughes, J.M., Smith, J.A. et al. Latitudinal and ontogenetic variation in the diet of a pelagic mesopredator (Pomatomus saltatrix), assessed with a classification tree analysis. Mar Biol 164, 75 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00227-017-3105-1

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  • gut content analysis
  • piscivory
  • East Australian Current
  • baitfish
  • tailor