• attack rate;
  • feeding activity;
  • functional response;
  • swimming characteristics;
  • zooplanktivorous fish

SUMMARY 1. The objective of this study was to evaluate the effects of zooplankton biomass (as a measure of density), fish biomass, light intensity and water temperature on the attack rate and swimming characteristics (i.e. swimming speed and angle of turn) of juvenile (1+) brook charr (Salvelinus fontinalis) in field enclosures. We used a portable underwater camera system in a series of pelagic enclosures to quantify the feeding behaviour of brook charr over a gradient of natural conditions.

2. In simple linear or non-linear regression models we found (i) that attack rate and angle of turn were positively related to water temperature, (ii) that attack rate and swimming speed were positively related to zooplankton biomass and light intensity and (iii) that attack rate was positively related to swimming speed. In multiple regression models, fish biomass, light intensity and variance of the angle of turn accounted for 87% of the variation in attack rate. Light intensity and water temperature accounted for 86% of the variation in swimming speed. Fish gut fullness and attack rate accounted for 83% of the variation in the variance of the angle of turn executed by fish.

3. The increase in the number of attacks as zooplankton biomass increases conforms to the general positive functional response observed in other fish species. Our results also support the hypothesis that swimming speed increases with prey biomass. We did not observe a plateau in attack rate as zooplankton biomass increased. As our experiments were performed under natural biotic and abiotic conditions, factors other than zooplankton biomass might affect or limit this response, such as water temperature and light intensity.

4. Because zooplankton biomass was correlated with water temperature and light intensity, it was not possible to evaluate the independent contribution of these factors on the attack rate and swimming characteristics (swimming speeds and angle of turn) of brook charr. However, this study highlighted the impact of these factors on the feeding behaviour of juvenile brook charr when feeding in the pelagic habitat under natural conditions, and their importance in future models of optimal foraging and fish habitat quality.