Document Type

Thesis

Degree

M.S.

Degree Granting Department

Marine Science

Major Professor

Christopher D. Stallings

Keywords

estuaries, mesocosm, seagrass, Spotted Seatrout, trophodynamics

Abstract

Marine ecosystems are highly dynamic and contain a diverse faunal assemblage that are subject to various natural and anthropogenic variability. Globally, seagrass ecosystems are located adjacent to coastal areas that are heavily impacted by human development and urbanization potentially altering the community structure within these ecosystem. Complex food webs connect many components of these systems, often in unexpected ways, and are ultimately based on one of two pathways: benthic (i.e., seagrass, epiphytes, microalgae, detritus) and planktonic (i.e., phytoplankton). Understanding the pathway which the food web is based gives further insight regarding the biological balance of the ecosystem; thus it is important to expand beyond bounds of single-species approaches for research and management.

Observing what a predator consumes and its preference for any particular prey can be informative in regards to how a predator interacts and utilizes an ecosystem. Predatory fish are exposed to a wide range of potential prey with varying levels of mobility in their natural environment and may employ a wide range of feeding tactics in order to capture prey. Overall, prey availability and abundances are influenced by many factors (e.g., seasons, tides, habitat loss and gain) and many piscivorous fishes will undergo ontogenetic shift in diet in order to optimize their energetic return limiting the interpretation of electivity studies. Although much information can be obtained through stomach analysis of fish, some prey are more rapidly digested due to the lack of hard, external structures and may be overlooked in the analysis. Furthermore, prey preference cannot be based solely on the observed abundance in the diet of a predator because it takes time for a predator to find, consume, and digest prey (i.e., "handling time"). Therefore, multiple approaches, both observational and experimental, are necessary to fully understand trophodynamics of fishes and their ecosystems.

To better understand the trophodynamics of the Spotted Seatrout, Cynoscion nebulosus, my thesis incorporates both an observational and experimental study. My observational study compares three stomach analyses datasets to address changes in the diet composition over a thirty-two year timespan during which natural and anthropogenic changes potentially altered the community structure of Tampa Bay. This is paired with an experimental study to address differently handling times of two morphologically- and behaviorally- different prey that were observed in the diet of juvenile Spotted Seatrout.

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