Understanding how both quality and quantity of prey affect the population dynamics of marine predators is a crucial step toward predicting the effects of environmental perturbations on population-level processes. The Junk Food Hypothesis, which posits that energetic content of prey species may influence reproductive capacity of marine top predators regardless of prey availability, has been proposed as a mechanism by which changes in prey populations could affect predator populations in high latitude systems; however, support for this hypothesis has been inconsistent across studies, and further data are needed to elucidate variation in the relative importance of prey quantity and quality, both among predator species and across ecological systems. We tested the relative importance of prey quantity and quality to nestling survival in the eastern brown pelican Pelecanus occidentalis carolinensis across 9 breeding colonies in the northern Gulf of Mexico that varied in underlying availability of a key prey resource, the Gulf menhaden Brevoortia patronus. Both feeding frequency and meal mass were significantly correlated to energy provisioning rates and nestling survival, while energy density of meals had little effect on either metric. Compared to previous results from cold-water systems, we found lower and less variable energy densities (4.4 kJ g-1, vs. 5.2 to 6.5 kJ g-1 in other studies) and lipid content (9% dry mass, vs. 16 to 23% in other studies) of common prey items. While Gulf menhaden was the most common prey species at all colonies, the proportion of menhaden fed to nestlings varied and was not strongly correlated to fledging success. We conclude that quantity rather than quality of prey, particularly small schooling fish, is the main driver of brown pelican reproductive success in this system, and that environmental perturbations affecting biomass, distribution, and abundance of forage fish could substantially affect brown pelican reproductive success.
Additional publication details
|Publication Subtype||Journal Article|
|Title||Diet composition and provisioning rates of nestlings determine reproductive success in a subtropical seabird|
|Series title||Marine Ecology Progress Series|
|Contributing office(s)||Coop Res Unit Atlanta|
|Other Geospatial||Gulf of Mexico|