Rethinking the Freshwater Eel: Salt Marsh Trophic Support of the American Eel, Anguilla rostrata

Abstract

Despite the fact that Anguilla rostrata (American eel) are frequently captured in salt marshes, their role in salt marsh food webs and the influence of human impacts, such as tidal restrictions, on this role remains unclear. To better understand salt marsh trophic support of A. rostrata, eels were collected from tidally restricted and unrestricted salt marsh creeks within three New England estuaries. Gut contents were examined, and eel muscle tissue was analyzed for carbon and nitrogen stable isotope values and entered into MixSir mixing models to understand if salt marsh food sources are important contributors to eel diet. Data suggest that eel prey rely heavily on salt marsh organic matter and eels utilize salt marsh secondary production as an energetic resource over time, and thus can be considered salt marsh residents. Gut contents indicate that A. rostrata function as top predators, feeding primarily on secondary consumers including other fish species, crustaceans, and polychaetes. Higher A. rostrata trophic position measured upstream of reference creeks suggests that severe tidal restrictions may result in altered food webs, but it is not clear how this impacts the overall fitness of A. rostrata populations in New England salt marshes.

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Acknowledgments

The authors are grateful to Chris Peter, Chris Cavalieri, Carol Eberhardt, and Sandra Pimentel for field assistance, stable isotope sample preparation, and gut content analysis, and to Raymond Grizzle for assistance in identifying invertebrates in gut content samples. The authors also extend thanks to Andy Ouimette at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Stable Isotope Laboratory for assistance in stable isotope sample analysis as well as Linda Deegan, Charles Hopkinson, and Hap Garritt for permission to use Quercus rubra and marine particulate organic matter stable isotope values. New Hampshire Sea Grant Development Funds, the UNH Marine Program William R. Spaulding Endowment, and the Natural Resources and Earth Systems Science doctoral program at UNH provided funding for this research. The Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge granted permission to sample in Wells, Maine.

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Correspondence to Alyson L. Eberhardt.

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Eberhardt, A.L., Burdick, D.M., Dionne, M. et al. Rethinking the Freshwater Eel: Salt Marsh Trophic Support of the American Eel, Anguilla rostrata . Estuaries and Coasts 38, 1251–1261 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12237-015-9960-4

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Keywords

  • Yellow eel
  • Tidal marsh
  • Tidal restriction
  • Stable isotope
  • Gut contents
  • Mixing model