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Diet of yellow-billed loons (Gavia adamsii) in Arctic lakes during the nesting season inferred from fatty acid analysis

April 11, 2015

Understanding the dietary habits of yellow-billed loons (Gavia adamsii) can give important insights into their ecology, however, studying the diet of loons is difficult when direct observation or specimen collection is impractical. We investigate the diet of yellow-billed loons nesting on the Arctic Coastal Plain of Alaska using quantitative fatty acid signature analysis. Tissue analysis from 26 yellow-billed loons and eleven prey groups (nine fish species and two invertebrate groups) from Arctic lakes suggests that yellow-billed loons are eating high proportions of Alaska blackfish (Dallia pectoralis), broad whitefish (Coregonus nasus) and three-spined stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus) during late spring and early summer. The prominence of blackfish in diets highlights the widespread availability of blackfish during the early stages of loon nesting, soon after spring thaw. The high proportions of broad whitefish and three-spined stickleback may reflect a residual signal from the coastal staging period prior to establishing nesting territories on lakes, when loons are more likely to encounter these species. Our analyses were sensitive to the choice of calibration coefficient based on data from three different species, indicating the need for development of loon-specific coefficients for future study and confirmation of our results. Regardless, fish that are coastally distributed and that successfully overwinter in lakes are likely key food items for yellow-billed loons early in the nesting season.