Drift-feeding fish are challenged to discriminate between prey and similar-sized particles of debris, which are ubiquitous even in clear-water streams. Spending time and energy pursuing debris mistaken as prey could affect fish growth and the fitness potential of different foraging strategies. Our goal was to determine the extent to which debris influences drift-feeding fish in clear water under low-flow conditions when the distracting effect of debris should be at a minimum. We used high-definition video to measure the reactions of drift-feeding juvenile Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) to natural debris and prey in situ in the Chena River, Alaska. Among all potential food items fish pursued, 52 % were captured and quickly expelled from the mouth, 39 % were visually inspected but not captured, and only 9 % were ingested. Foraging attempt rate was only moderately correlated with ingestion rate (Kendall’s τ = 0.55), raising concerns about the common use of foraging attempts as a presumed index of foraging success. The total time fish spent handling debris increased linearly with foraging attempt rate and ranged between 4 and 25 % of total foraging time among observed groups. Our results help motivate a revised theoretical view of drift feeding that emphasizes prey detection and discrimination, incorporating ideas from signal detection theory and the study of visual attention in cognitive ecology. We discuss how these ideas could lead to better explanations and predictions of the spatial behavior, prey selection, and energy intake of drift-feeding fish.
Additional publication details
Mechanisms of drift-feeding behavior in juvenile Chinook salmon and the role of inedible debris in a clear water Alaskan stream