1. The niche variation hypothesis predicts that among-individual variation in niche use will increase in the presence of intraspecific competition and decrease in the presence of interspecific competition. We sought to determine whether the local isotopic niche breadth of fish inhabiting a wetland was best explained by competition for resources and the niche variation hypothesis, by dispersal of individuals from locations with different prey resources or by a combination of the two. We analysed stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen as indices of feeding niche and compared metrics of within-site spread to characterise site-level isotopic niche breadth. We then evaluated the explanatory power of competing models of the direct and indirect effects of several environmental variables spanning gradients of disturbance, competition strength and food availability on among-individual variation of the eastern mosquitofish (Gambusia holbrooki).
2. The Dispersal model posits that only the direct effect of disturbance (i.e. changes in water level known to induce fish movement) influences among-individual variation in isotopic niche. The Partitioning model allows for only direct effects of local food availability on among-individual variation. The Combined model allows for both hypotheses by including the direct effects of disturbance and food availability.
3. A linear regression of the Combined model described more variance than models limited to the variables of either the Dispersal or Partitioning models. Of the independent variables considered, the food availability variable (per cent edible periphyton) explained the most variation in isotopic niche breadth, followed closely by the disturbance variable (days since last drying event).
4. Structural equation modelling provided further evidence that the Combined model was best supported by the data, with the Partitioning and the Dispersal models only modestly less informative. Again, the per cent edible periphyton was the variable with the largest direct effect on niche variability, with other food availability variables and the disturbance variable only slightly less important. Indirect effects of heterospecific and conspecific competitor densities were also important, through their effects on prey density.
5. Our results support the Combined hypotheses, although partitioning mechanisms appear to explain the most diet variation among individuals in the eastern mosquitofish. The results also support some predictions of the niche variation hypothesis, although both conspecific and interspecific competition appeared to increase isotopic niche breadth in contrast to predictions that interspecific competition would decrease it. We think this resulted from high diet overlap of co-occurring species, most of which consume similar macroinvertebrates.
Abbey-Lee, R., E.E. Gaiser, J.C. Trexler. 2013. Relative roles of dispersal dynamics and competition in determining the isotopic niche breadth of a wetland fish. Freshwater Biology 58: 780-792. DOI: 10.1111/fwb.12084