Human activities have affected the Lake Huron ecosystem, in part, through alterations in the structure and function of its food webs. Insights into the nature of food web change and its ecological ramifications can be obtained through the monitoring of high trophic level predators such as aquatic birds. Often, food web change involves alterations in the relative abundance of constituent species and/or the introduction of new species (exotic invaders). Diet composition of aquatic birds is influenced, in part, by relative prey availability and therefore is a sensitive measure of food web structure. Using bird diet data to make inferences regarding food web change requires consistent measures of diet composition through time. This can be accomplished by measuring stable chemical and/or biochemical “ecological tracers” in archived avian samples. Such tracers provide insights into pathways of energy and nutrient transfer. In this study, we examine the utility of two groups of naturally-occurring intrinsic tracers (stable isotopes and fatty acids) to provide such information in a predatory seabird, the herring gull (Larus argentatus). Retrospective stable nitrogen and carbon isotope analysis of archived herring gull eggs identified declines in gull trophic position and shifts in food sources in Lake Huron over the last 25 years and changes in gull diet composition were inferred from egg fatty acid patterns. These independent groups of ecological tracers provided corroborating evidence of dietary change in this high trophic level predator. Gull dietary shifts were related to declines in prey fish abundance which suggests large-scale alterations to the Lake Huron ecosystem. Dietary shifts in herring gulls may be contributing to reductions in resources available for egg formation. Further research is required to evaluate how changes in resource availability may affect population sustainability in herring gulls and other waterbird species. Long-term biological monitoring programs are required to identify ecosystem change and evaluate its ecological significance.
Additional publication details
Diets of aquatic birds reflect changes in the Lake Huron ecosystem