Episodic predation of mammals by stream fishes in a boreal river basin



Stream-dwelling fish typically feed on small prey items, such as benthic invertebrates, but maintain the capacity to opportunistically feed on rare, large-bodied prey when available. However, consumption of particularly large prey is typically viewed as isolated events that are not organised spatially or temporally across watersheds. We assessed the occurrence of small mammals in the stomach contents of rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) and Arctic grayling (Thymallus arcticus) over 13 years in the Wood River basin, Alaska (59°34′N, 158°48′W). Shrews (Sorex spp.) were the dominant mammals observed episodically every 2–3 years in the stomach contents of fish. Notably, shrew consumption was correlated in both Arctic grayling and rainbow trout within individual streams, and across the river basin in several subwatersheds. Predators of shrews were usually the largest individuals within each population, suggesting that smaller fish are gape-limited and that dominant fish monopolised mammal prey. On average, 24% (11–38%) of Arctic grayling >298 mm (fork length) and rainbow trout >290 mm contained mammal prey during peak years. Small mammal populations often cycle every 2–5 years with well-known functional and numerical effects for terrestrial predators, a dynamic that may be reflected in our 13 years data set of diet contents for aquatic predators. Although numerically infrequent when averaged over time, small mammal subsidies to streams may be episodically important to the energy budgets of long-lived consumers in freshwater environments.