Beyond trophic morphology: stable isotopes reveal ubiquitous versatility in marine turtle trophic ecology

Last modified: 
August 6, 2019 - 1:50pm
Type: Journal Article
Year of publication: 2019
Date published: 07/2019
Authors: Christine Figgener, Joseph Bernardo, Pamela Plotkin
Journal title: Biological Reviews
ISSN: 1464-7931

The idea that interspecific variation in trophic morphology among closely related species effectively permits resource partitioning has driven research on ecological radiation since Darwin first described variation in beak morphology among Geospiza.

Marine turtles comprise an ecological radiation in which interspecific differences in trophic morphology have similarly been implicated as a pathway to ecopartition the marine realm, in both extant and extinct species. Because marine turtles are charismatic flagship species of conservation concern, their trophic ecology has been studied intensively using stable isotope analyses to gain insights into habitat use and diet, principally to inform conservation management. This legion of studies provides an unparalleled opportunity to examine ecological partitioning across numerous hierarchical levels that heretofore has not been applied to any other ecological radiation. Our contribution aims to provide a quantitative analysis of interspecific variation and a comprehensive review of intraspecific variation in trophic ecology across different hierarchical levels marshalling insights about realised trophic ecology derived from stable isotopes.

We reviewed 113 stable isotope studies, mostly involving single species, and conducted a meta‐analysis of data from adults to elucidate differences in trophic ecology among species. Our study reveals a more intricate hierarchy of ecopartitioning by marine turtles than previously recognised based on trophic morphology and dietary analyses. We found strong statistical support for interspecific partitioning, as well as a continuum of intraspecific trophic sub‐specialisation in most species across several hierarchical levels. This ubiquity of trophic specialisation across many hierarchical levels exposes a far more complex view of trophic ecology and resource‐axis exploitation than suggested by species diversity alone. Not only do species segregate along many widely understood axes such as body size, macrohabitat, and trophic morphology but the general pattern revealed by isotopic studies is one of microhabitat segregation and variation in foraging behaviour within species, within populations, and among individuals.

These findings are highly relevant to conservation management because they imply ecological non‐exchangeability, which introduces a new dimension beyond that of genetic stocks which drives current conservation planning.

Perhaps the most remarkable finding from our data synthesis is that four of six marine turtle species forage across several trophic levels. This pattern is unlike that seen in other large marine predators, which forage at a single trophic level according to stable isotopes. This finding affirms suggestions that marine turtles are robust sentinels of ocean health and likely stabilise marine food webs. This insight has broader significance for studies of marine food webs and trophic ecology of large marine predators.

Beyond insights concerning marine turtle ecology and conservation, our findings also have broader implications for the study of ecological radiations. Particularly, the unrecognised complexity of ecopartitioning beyond that predicted by trophic morphology suggests that this dominant approach in adaptive radiation research likely underestimates the degree of resource overlap and that interspecific disparities in trophic morphology may often over‐predict the degree of realised ecopartitioning. Hence, our findings suggest that stable isotopes can profitably be applied to study other ecological radiations and may reveal trophic variation beyond that reflected by trophic morphology.

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