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Using stable isotopes to test for trophic niche partitioning: a case study with stream salamanders and fish


Adam J. Sepulveda, U.S. Geological Survey, Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center, 2327 University Way, Suite 2, Bozeman, MT 59715, U.S.A. E-mail:


1. Stream salamanders and fish often co-occur even though fish prey on and outcompete salamanders. However, the mechanisms that allow palatable salamanders to coexist with fish are unknown.

2. We tested mechanisms in the field that promote coexistence between Idaho giant salamanders (Dicamptodon aterrimus) and stream salmonid fishes in headwater streams. Previous research in this system indicated that salamander dispersal did not promote coexistence with fish. We tested the hypothesis that D. aterrimus shift their diet when they occur with fish, facilitating coexistence through local niche partitioning.

3. We used nitrogen and carbon stable isotopes to describe the trophic niche of D. aterrimus and fish in three co-occurring populations of salamanders and fish and three populations of salamanders without fish. We used two approaches to quantify trophic niche partitioning with stable isotopes: 95% kernel density estimators and isotopic mixing models.

4. We found that salamanders and fish were generalists that consumed aquatic invertebrates primarily, but both species were also cannibalistic and predatory on one another. We also found no support for trophic niche partitioning as a coexistence mechanism because there were no differences in the trophic niche metrics among salamander populations with and without fish.

5. Although we did not identify mechanisms that facilitate salamander and fish coexistence, our empirical data and use of novel approaches to describe the trophic niche did yield important insights on the role of predator–prey interactions and cannibalism as alternative coexistence mechanisms. In addition, we found that 95% kernel estimators are a simple and robust method to describe population-level measure of trophic structure.