Methods of estimating marine mammal diets: A review of validation experiments and sources of bias and uncertainty


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Diet estimation in marine mammals relies on indirect methods including recovery of prey hard parts from stomachs and feces, quantitative fatty acid signature analysis (QFASA), stable isotope mixing models, and identification of prey DNA in stomach contents and feces. Experimental evidence (9 species/13 studies) shows that digestion strongly influences the proportion and size of otoliths that can be recovered in feces. Number correction factors (NCF) and digestion coefficients have been experimentally determined to reduce the biases in fecal analysis. Correction factors and coefficients have not been determined for diet estimated from stomach contents. QFASA estimates which prey species and amounts must have been eaten to account for the fatty acid composition of the predator. Experimental studies on mammals and seabirds (9 species/10 studies) indicate that accurate estimates of diet can be determined using QFASA. Stable isotope mixing models provide rather coarse taxonomic resolution of diet composition. Prey DNA analysis shows promise as a method to estimate the species composition of diet, but further development and testing is needed to validate its use. Obtaining a representative sample from marine mammal populations is a significant challenge. Therefore, the use of complementary methods is recommended to obtain the most informative results.