Stable isotope analyses identify trophic niche partitioning between sympatric terrestrial vertebrates in coastal saltmarshes with differing oiling histories

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Great Lakes Research Center


Bioindicator species are commonly used as proxies to help identify the ecological effects of oil spills and other stressors. However, the utility of taxa as bioindicators is dependent on understanding their trophic niche and life history characteristics, as these factors mediate their ecological responses. Seaside sparrows (Ammospiza maritima) and marsh rice rats (Oryzomys palustris) are two ubiquitous terrestrial vertebrates that are thought to be bioindicators of oil spills in saltmarsh ecosystems. To improve the utility of these omnivorous taxa as bioindicators, we used carbon and nitrogen stable isotope analysis to quantify their trophic niches at saltmarshes in coastal Louisiana with differing oiling histories. We found that rats generally had lower trophic positions and incorporated more aquatic prey relative to seaside sparrows. The range of resources used (i.e.,trophic niche width) varied based on oiling history. Seaside sparrows had wider trophic niches than marsh rice rats at unoiled sites, but not at oiled sites. Trophic niche widths of conspecifics were less consistent at oiled sites, although marsh rice rats at oiled sites had wider trophic niches than rats at unoiled sites. These results suggest that past oiling histories may have imparted subtle, yet differing effects on the foraging ecology of these two co-occurring species. However, the temporal lag between initial oiling and our study makes identifying the ultimate drivers of differences between oiled and unoiled sites challenging. Even so, our findings provide a baseline quantification of the trophic niches of sympatric seaside sparrows and marsh rice rats that will aid in the use of these species as indicators of oiling and other environmental stressors in saltmarsh ecosystems.

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