Application Of Stable Isotope Analysis To Study Temporal Changes In Foraging Ecology In A Highly Endangered Amphibian




Gillespie, J. Hayley

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Public Library of Science


Background -- Understanding dietary trends for endangered species may be essential to assessing the effects of ecological disturbances such as habitat modification, species introductions or global climate change. Documenting temporal variation in prey selection may also be crucial for understanding population dynamics. However, the rarity, secretive behaviours and obscure microhabitats of some endangered species can make direct foraging observations difficult or impossible. Furthermore, the lethality or invasiveness of some traditional methods of dietary analysis (e.g. gut contents analysis, gastric lavage) makes them inappropriate for such species. Stable isotope analysis facilitates non-lethal, indirect analysis of animal diet that has unrealized potential in the conservation of endangered organisms, particularly amphibians. Methodology/findings -- I determined proportional contributions of aquatic macroinvertebrate prey to the diet of an endangered aquatic salamander Eurycea sosorum over a two-year period using stable isotope analysis of 13/12C and 15/14N and the Bayesian stable isotope mixing model SIAR. I calculated Strauss’ dietary electivity indices by comparing these proportions with changing relative abundance of potential prey species through time. Stable isotope analyses revealed that a previously unknown prey item (soft-bodied planarian flatworms in the genus Dugesia) made up the majority of E. sosorum diet. Results also demonstrate that E. sosorum is an opportunistic forager capable of diet switching to include a greater proportion of alternative prey when Dugesia populations decline. There is also evidence of intra-population dietary variation. Conclusions/significance -- Effective application of stable isotope analysis can help circumvent two key limitations commonly experienced by researchers of endangered species: the inability to directly observe these species in nature and the invasiveness or lethality of traditional methods of dietary analysis. This study illustrates the feasibility of stable isotope analysis in identifying preferred prey species that can be used to guide conservation management of both wild and captive food sources for endangered species.


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Gillespie JH (2013) Application Of Stable Isotope Analysis To Study Temporal Changes In Foraging Ecology In A Highly Endangered Amphibian. PLoS ONE 8(1): e53041. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0053041