Functional analysis of a specialized prey processing behavior: Winnowing by surfperches (Teleostei: Embiotocidae)

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Abstract

Several surfperches (Embiotocidae), including the black surfperch, Embiotoca jacksoni, exhibit a specialized prey handling behavior known as winnowing, in which ingested food and non-nutritive debris are separated within the oropharyngeal cavity. Prey items are swallowed, and unpalatable material is ejected from the mouth. Winnowing is believed to play an important role in the partitioning of food resources among sympatric embiotocids. We present a mechanistic model for this separative prey processing based on high-speed video analysis, cineradiography, electromyography, and buccal and opercular cavity pressure transducer recording.

Winnowing by embiotocids is characterized by premaxillary protrusions repeated cyclically with reduced oral gape. Protrusion is accompanied by depression of the hyoid apparatus and adduction of the opercula. Alternating expansion and contraction of the buccal and opercular cavities generate regular pressure waveforms that indicate bidirectional water flow during processing. Separation of food from debris by Embiotoca jacksoni occurs in three phases. The prey-debris bolus is transported anteriorly and posteriorly within the oropharyngeal cavity and is then sheared by the pharyngeal jaws. Mechanical processing is complemented by the rinsing action of water currents during hydraulic prey transport.

The feeding apparatus of Embiotoca jacksoni is functionally versatile, although not obviously specialized relative to that of nonwinnowing surfperches. Protrusion of the premaxillae and depression of the hyoid apparatus are critical to both prey capture and subsequent prey processing. The pharyngeal jaws exhibit kinematic patterns during separation of food from debris distinct from those observed during mastication of uncontaminated prey. This behavioral flexibility facilitates resource partitioning and the coexistence of E. jacksoni in sympatric embiotocid assemblages.

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