Food web studies often ignore details of temporal, spatial, and intrapopulation dietary variation in top-level consumers. In this study, intrapopulation dietary variation of a dominant carnivore, the Laughing Gull (Larus atricilla), was examined using carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur isotope analysis of gull tissues as well as their prey (fish, invertebrates, and insects) from the Virginia Coast Reserve estuarine system. As earlier traditional diet studies found evidence of individual dietary specialization within gull populations, this study used stable isotope analysis to assess specialization in a coastal Laughing Gull population. Specifically, blood, muscle, and feather isotope values indicated significant intrapopulation dietary specialization. Some gulls relied more heavily on estuarine prey (mean blood δ13C = -17.5, δ15N = 12.6, and δ34S = 9.3), whereas others appeared to consume more foods of marine origin (mean blood δ13C = -19.4, δ15N = 14.8, and δ34S = 10.4). It is important to account for such dietary variability when assessing trophic linkages in dynamic estuarine systems.
Additional publication details
Diets of nesting laughing gulls (Larus atricilla) at the Virginia Coast Reserve: observations from stable isotope analysis