1. The distribution of zooplankton in shallow lakes is negatively related to macrophyte density. However, the abundance of their food along density gradients of macrophytes is unknown. A common but untested assumption is that food quantity and quality for pelagic zooplankton is poor in the littoral zone owing to the deleterious influence of macrophytes on phytoplankton.
2. We tested this assumption with a combination of a field survey and laboratory experiments. We collected seston samples from the littoral and pelagic zones of four shallow temperate lakes and related food quantity (phytoplankton biovolume) and quality to macrophyte abundance (per cent volume infested). Seston food quality was assessed in three ways: N/C and P/C ratios, polyunsaturated fatty acid content and phytoplankton community composition. In the laboratory, we measured the growth and reproduction of Daphnia pulicaria on diets consisting of seston from the littoral and pelagic zones in one lake.
3. In our four study lakes, food quantity was not significantly influenced by macrophyte abundance, and food quality was generally high. Laboratory experiments showed increased juvenile growth, but no significant change in D. pulicaria reproduction, when feeding on littoral resources compared to pelagic resources.
4. Our results suggest that there is no nutritional cost to pelagic zooplankton inhabiting the littoral zone. Therefore, it is likely that other factors (e.g. predation, abiotic factors) are involved in determining zooplankton habitat use.