Document Type

Dissertation

Degree

Doctor of Philosophy

Department

Biology

First Advisor's Name

Michael R Heithaus

First Advisor's Title

Committee Chair

Second Advisor's Name

Joel C. Trexler

Third Advisor's Name

Philip K. Stoddard

Fourth Advisor's Name

James W. Fourqurean

Fifth Advisor's Name

John P. Berry

Keywords

stingray, elasmobranch, predator-prey interaction, mesopredator, mesoconsumer, trophic relationships, shark

Date of Defense

3-29-2011

Abstract

Worldwide declines in populations of large elasmobranchs and the potential cascading effects on marine ecosystems have garnered considerable attention. Far less appreciated are the potential ecological impacts of changes in abundances of small to medium bodied elasmobranchs mesopredators. Crucial to elucidating the role of these elasmobranchs is an understanding of their habitat use and foraging ecology in pristine conditions. I investigated the trophic interactions and factors driving spatiotemporal variation in abundances of elasmobranch mesopredators in the relatively pristine ecosystem of Shark Bay, Australia. First, I describe the species composition and seasonal habitat use patterns of elasmobranch mesopredator on the sandflats of Shark Bay. Juvenile batoids dominated this diverse community and were extremely abundant in nearshore microhabitats during the warm season. Stomach content analysis and stable isotopic analysis revealed that there is a large degree of dietary overlap between common batoid species. Crustaceans, which tend to be found in seagrass habitats, dominated diets. Despite isotopic differences between many species, overlap in isotopic niche space was high and there was some degree of individual specialization. I then, investigated the importance of abiotic (temperature and water depth) and biotic (prey and predator abundance) factors in shaping batoid habitat use. Batoids were most abundant and tended to rest in shallow nearshore waters when temperatures were high. This pattern coincides with periods of large shark abundance suggesting batoids were seeking refuge from predators rather than selecting optimal temperatures. Finally, I used acoustic telemetry to examine batoid residency and diel use of the sandflats. Individual batoids were present on the sandflats during both the warm and cold seasons and throughout the diel cycle, suggesting lower sandflat densities during the cold season were a result of habitat shifts rather than migration out of Shark Bay. Combined, habitat use and dietary results suggest that batoids have the potential to seasonally impact sandflat dynamics through their presence, although foraging may be limited on the sandflats. Interestingly, my results suggest that elasmobranch mesopredators in pristine ecosystems probably are not regulated by food supply and their habitat use patterns and perhaps ecosystem impacts may be influenced by their predators.

Share

COinS