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Keywords:

  • food webs;
  • habitat use;
  • movements;
  • shark nursery;
  • trophic ecology;
  • δ13C

Summary

  1. Understanding how natural and anthropogenic drivers affect extant food webs is critical to predicting the impacts of climate change and habitat alterations on ecosystem dynamics.
  2. In the Florida Everglades, seasonal reductions in freshwater flow and precipitation lead to annual migrations of aquatic taxa from marsh habitats to deep-water refugia in estuaries. The timing and intensity of freshwater reductions, however, will be modified by ongoing ecosystem restoration and predicted climate change.
  3. Understanding the importance of seasonally pulsed resources to predators is critical to predicting the impacts of management and climate change on their populations. As with many large predators, however, it is difficult to determine to what extent predators like bull sharks (Carcharhinus leucas) in the coastal Everglades make use of prey pulses currently.
  4. We used passive acoustic telemetry to determine whether shark movements responded to the pulse of marsh prey. To investigate the possibility that sharks fed on marsh prey, we modelled the predicted dynamics of stable isotope values in bull shark blood and plasma under different assumptions of temporal variability in shark diets and physiological dynamics of tissue turnover and isotopic discrimination.
  5. Bull sharks increased their use of upstream channels during the late dry season, and although our previous work shows long-term specialization in the diets of sharks, stable isotope values suggested that some individuals adjusted their diets to take advantage of prey entering the system from the marsh, and as such this may be an important resource for the nursery.
  6. Restoration efforts are predicted to increase hydroperiods and marsh water levels, likely shifting the timing, duration and intensity of prey pulses, which could have negative consequences for the bull shark population and/or induce shifts in behaviour.
  7. Understanding the factors influencing the propensity to specialize or adopt more flexible trophic interactions will be an important step in fully understanding the ecological role of predators and how ecological roles may vary with environmental and anthropogenic changes.