Prey vulnerability to a gape-size limited predator: behavioural and morphological impacts on northern pike piscivory


  • P. Anders Nilsson,

  • Christer Brönmark

P. A. Nilsson and C. Brönmark, Dept of Animal Ecology, Ecology Building, SE-223 62 Lund, Sweden (


The northern pike (Esox lucius) is a selective and important predator in lake ecosystems. Prey size in pike is limited by pike gape size, which is a linear function of pike body length. Here we show that the absolute gape-size limit in pike is greater than previously considered, and that maximum ingestible prey size is limited by prey body depth. Further, we experimentally show that pike prefer shallow-bodied roach before deeper-bodied common bream, and small prey sizes within each prey species. Handling time in pike increases with prey body depth, and since common bream are deeper-bodied than roach, handling time is longer for bream than for roach of the same length, but equal considering body depth. Prey handling time is suggested to be a major cost to the pike, since it increases the risk of losing the prey, as well as exposure to predation, kleptoparasitism and cannibalism. Consequently, prey vulnerability is determined by risk of predation and intraspecific interactions, and behavioural preferences in the pike, and not by pike gape-size limits. The consequences for natural populations is evaluated by analysing size structures of predator and prey fish populations in a eutrophic lake.