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The interaction of intraspecific competition and habitat on individual diet specialization: a near range-wide examination of sea otters

May 1, 2015

The quantification of individuality is a common research theme in the fields of population, community, and evolutionary ecology. The potential for individuality to arise is likely context-dependent, and the influence of habitat characteristics on its prevalence has received less attention than intraspecific competition. We examined individual diet specialization in 16 sea otter (Enhydra lutris) populations from southern California to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. Because population histories, relative densities, and habitat characteristics vary widely among sites, we could examine the effects of intraspecific competition and habitat on the prevalence of individual diet specialization. Using observed diet data, we classified half of our sites as rocky substrate habitats and the other half containing a mixture of rocky and unconsolidated (soft) sediment substrates. We used stable isotope data to quantify population- and individual-level diet variation. Among rocky substrate sites, the slope [±standard error (SE)] of the positive significant relationship between the within-individual component (WIC) and total isotopic niche width (TINW) was shallow (0.23 ± 0.07) and negatively correlated with sea otter density. In contrast, the slope of the positive WIC/TINW relationship for populations inhabiting mixed substrate habitats was much higher (0.53 ± 0.14), suggesting a low degree of individuality, irrespective of intraspecific competition. Our results show that the potential for individuality to occur as a result of increasing intraspecific competition is context-dependent and that habitat characteristics, which ultimately influence prey diversity, relative abundance, and the range of skillsets required for efficient prey procurement, are important in determining when and where individual diet specialization occurs in nature.

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