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Diet and feeding niches of juvenile Gadus morhua, Melanogrammus aeglefinus and Merlangius merlangus during the settlement transition in the northern North Sea

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Abstract

A study on the feeding ecology of juvenile cod Gadus morhua, haddock Melanogrammus aeglefinus and whiting Merlangius merlangus during the pelagic to demersal transition was carried out on fishes sampled throughout their settlement season at a local nursery ground in the north-western North Sea, off the Scottish east coast. A comprehensive quantitative taxonomic analysis of the diets, as described in the paper, showed the emergence of distinctive feeding niches, minimizing the potential for competition between species and size categories. The diet of the juveniles changed with fish size, water depth, time of year and distance offshore. Small G. morhua were present in the study area earlier in the season, settled further inshore and ate a higher proportion of pelagic prey (copepods) and as size increased they moved into deeper waters and targeted larger, more benthic prey. As M. aeglefinus grew larger and moved into deeper waters, a diet of largely copepods, amphipods, pelagic Ammodytes spp., cyprids and pelagic gastropods evolved to one dominated predominantly by fishes and benthic invertebrates. In the case of M. merlangus, widespread ages and sizes throughout the sampling season, a consequence of their more protracted spawning season, resulted in dietary changes which were more likely to be influenced by seasonal changes in the prey field, in addition to developmental (size) changes, than the diets of the other two species.

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