Document Type

Dissertation

Degree

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Biology

First Advisor's Name

Michael R. Heithaus

First Advisor's Committee Title

Committee Chair

Second Advisor's Name

Maureen Donnelly

Third Advisor's Name

Craig Layman

Fourth Advisor's Name

Rene Price

Fifth Advisor's Name

Frank Mazzotti

Keywords

acoustic tracking, stable isotopes, stomach contents, individual specialization, apex predator

Date of Defense

6-14-2013

Abstract

Top predators can have large effects on community and population dynamics but we still know relatively little about their roles in ecosystems and which biotic and abiotic factors potentially affect their behavioral patterns. Understanding the roles played by top predators is a pressing issue because many top predator populations around the world are declining rapidly yet we do not fully understand what the consequences of their potential extirpation could be for ecosystem structure and function. In addition, individual behavioral specialization is commonplace across many taxa, but studies of its prevalence, causes, and consequences in top predator populations are lacking. In this dissertation I investigated the movement, feeding patterns, and drivers and implications of individual specialization in an American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) population inhabiting a dynamic subtropical estuary. I found that alligator movement and feeding behaviors in this population were largely regulated by a combination of biotic and abiotic factors that varied seasonally. I also found that the population consisted of individuals that displayed an extremely wide range of movement and feeding behaviors, indicating that individual specialization is potentially an important determinant of the varied roles of alligators in ecosystems. Ultimately, I found that assuming top predator populations consist of individuals that all behave in similar ways in terms of their feeding, movements, and potential roles in ecosystems is likely incorrect. As climate change and ecosystem restoration and conservation activities continue to affect top predator populations worldwide, individuals will likely respond in different and possibly unexpected ways.

Identifier

FI13080511

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