Structure of tropical river food webs revealed by stable isotope ratios


  • David B. Jepsen,

  • Kirk O. Winemiller

D. B. Jepsen and K. O. Winemiller, Dept of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences, Texas A&M Univ., College Station, TX 77843, USA (present address of DBJ: Oregon Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. 104 Nash Hall, Dept of Fisheries and Wildlife Sciences, Oregon State Univ., Corvallis, OR 97331-3803, USA []).


Fish assemblages in tropical river food webs are characterized by high taxonomic diversity, diverse foraging modes, omnivory, and an abundance of detritivores. Feeding links are complex and modified by hydrologic seasonality and system productivity. These properties make it difficult to generalize about feeding relationships and to identify dominant linkages of energy flow. We analyzed the stable carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios of 276 fishes and other food web components living in four Venezuelan rivers that differed in basal food resources to determine 1) whether fish trophic guilds integrated food resources in a predictable fashion, thereby providing similar trophic resolution as individual species, 2) whether food chain length differed with system productivity, and 3) how omnivory and detritivory influenced trophic structure within these food webs. Fishes were grouped into four trophic guilds (herbivores, detritivores/algivores, omnivores, piscivores) based on literature reports and external morphological characteristics. Results of discriminant function analyses showed that isotope data were effective at reclassifying individual fish into their pre-identified trophic category. Nutrient-poor, black-water rivers showed greater compartmentalization in isotope values than more productive rivers, leading to greater reclassification success. In three out of four food webs, omnivores were more often misclassified than other trophic groups, reflecting the diverse food sources they assimilated. When fish δ15N values were used to estimate species position in the trophic hierarchy, top piscivores in nutrient-poor rivers had higher trophic positions than those in more productive rivers. This was in contrast to our expectation that productive systems would promote longer food chains. Although isotope ratios could not resolve species-level feeding pathways, they did reveal how top consumers integrate isotopic variability occurring lower in the food web. Top piscivores, regardless of species, had carbon and nitrogen profiles less variable than other trophic groups.