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Energy-rich mesopelagic fishes revealed as a critical prey resource for a deep-diving predator using quantitative fatty acid signature analysis

November 20, 2018

Understanding the diet of deep-diving predators can provide essential insight to the trophic structure of the mesopelagic ecosystem. Comprehensive population-level diet estimates are exceptionally difficult to obtain for elusive marine predators due to the logistical challenges involved in observing their feeding behavior and collecting samples for traditional stomach content or fecal analyses. We used quantitative fatty acid signature analysis (QFASA) to estimate the diet composition of a wide-ranging mesopelagic predator, the northern elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris), across five years. To implement QFASA, we first compiled a library of prey fatty acid (FA) profiles from the mesopelagic eastern North Pacific. Given the scarcity of a priori diet data for northern elephant seals, our prey library was necessarily large to encompass the range of potential prey in their foraging habitat. However, statistical constraints limit the number of prey species that can be included in the prey library to the number of dietary FAs in the analysis. Exceeding that limit could produce non-unique diet estimates (i.e., multiple diet estimates fit the data equally well). Consequently, we developed a novel ad-hoc method to identify which prey were unlikely to contribute to diet and could, therefore, be excluded from the final QFASA model. The model results suggest that seals predominantly consumed small mesopelagic fishes, including myctophids (lanternfishes) and bathylagids (deep sea smelts), while non-migrating mesopelagic squids comprised a third of their diet, substantially less than suggested by previous studies. Our results revealed that mesopelagic fishes, particularly energy-rich myctophids, were a critical prey resource, refuting the long-held view that elephant seals are squid specialists.