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Feeding ecology of generalist consumers: a case study of invasive blue catfish Ictalurus furcatus in Chesapeake Bay, Virginia, USA

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Abstract

Globally, invasive species cause extensive economic damage and are a major threat to biodiversity. Generalist species are particularly dangerous invaders, as they can thrive in degraded habitats and endure environmental stochasticity, often outcompeting more specialized native taxa. Blue catfish Ictalurus furcatus were first introduced into the Chesapeake Bay during the 1970s, and now form dense populations in several tidal rivers. Despite being labeled as a dangerous invasive, the feeding ecology of this species is largely unknown. We used a stratified random design to collect stomachs from 16,110 blue catfish in tidal freshwater, oligohaline, and mesohaline segments of the James, Pamunkey, Mattaponi, and Rappahannock Rivers. Indices of diet breadth and omnivory reveal that blue catfish are generalist omnivores with some of the highest diet breadths ever observed in an estuarine fish species, while trophic level calculations demonstrate that blue catfish are a mesopredator occupying lower trophic levels than previously claimed. Cumulative prey curves revealed that large numbers of stomachs are necessary to adequately characterize the diet of blue catfish, thus previous diet descriptions of this species should be considered with caution. Blue catfish feed primarily on invasive aquatic vegetation and Asian clams, though the economically-valuable blue crab Callinectes sapidus is also consumed regularly. While the per capita impact of blue catfish on imperiled native species appears to be low, this impact could still be substantial due to high population densities.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Jason Emmel, Zach Moran, Michael Moore, Hunter Hatcher, Hae Kim, Skylar Wolf, and Corbin Hilling who assisted in the field, often in adverse conditions. We thank the anonymous reviewers whose comments and insight greatly improved the manuscript. We thank Bob Greenlee and Yan Jiao for their guidance and assistance during our ongoing catfish research. We thank the Smithsonian Institution, particularly Rob Aguilar and Matt Ogburn, who assisted with the use of advanced molecular techniques to identify digested piscine prey. We thank Dr. Eric Hallerman, who selflessly assisted us and allowed us to use his lab. We thank Aaron Bunch, Robbie Willis, Kirk Dunn, Kaylie Johnson, and Alan Weaver who helped with the collection of stomachs, and Allison Mosley, Hae Kim, Zach Moran, Haena Lee, and John Woodward spent hours of effort in the laboratory and sorted through thousands of bags of rancid stomach contents. All animals were handled following a protocol approved by Virginia Tech’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (protocol # 13-196). Data collection for this project was funded by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries through a Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Student support and publication fees were provided by a graduate research fellowship from Virginia Sea Grant.

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Schmitt, J.D., Peoples, B.K., Castello, L. et al. Feeding ecology of generalist consumers: a case study of invasive blue catfish Ictalurus furcatus in Chesapeake Bay, Virginia, USA. Environ Biol Fish 102, 443–465 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10641-018-0783-6

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