Using Chemical Tracers to Evaluate Feeding Habits in Coastal Marine Ecosystems: Stable Isotopes and Organic Contaminants
Wilson, Rachel Marie (author)
Chanton, Jeffrey P. (professor directing dissertation)
Cooper, William T. (university representative)
Nowacek, Douglas P. (committee member)
Kucklick, John R. (committee member)
Wang, Yang (committee member)
Burnett, William C. (committee member)
Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences (degree granting department)
Florida State University (degree granting institution)
The use of chemical tracers to understand ecosystem interactions in the marine environment has gained increasing popularity over the past three decades. Carbon isotope abundances in organic matter sources in the marine system vary significantly making them a useful tracer for discriminating among such sources. Once taken up by primary producers, carbon isotope abundances are conservative throughout the food web. This allows us to measure carbon isotope abundances in secondary (and above) consumers and infer organic matter source utilization in the system. Nitrogen isotope abundances, unlike carbon, are not conservative throughout the food web. However, they do fractionate predictably providing a tool by which to measure trophic level of consumer species. Sulfur isotopes, like carbon, differ among sources and are also conservative within the food web providing an additional tracer with which to estimate source contributions. However, concerns about the "dirtiness" of sulfur for analysis purposes put sulfur on the back burner as an ecosystem tracer. With recent improvements in technology and the need for multiple tracers in multi-source systems, sulfur isotope abundance measurements have experienced a resurgence. In this manuscript we use sulfur isotope abundances as a second tracer (with carbon isotope abundances) to estimate organic matter source utilization by consumers in a variety of habitats along the Florida Big Bend coastline. We begin our isotopic analysis of consumers in a Northwest Gulf of Mexico, freshwater dominated estuarine system, Apalachicola Bay, Florida (USA). In Chapter II we evaluate isotopic variation with body size to determine the smallest trophic unit in our system. In Chapter III we develop a concentration-corrected, dual-isotope, multi-source evaluation of organic matter utilization incorporating sulfur as a secondary tracer. We then go on to apply the results of this model to determine trophic level of consumers in Apalachicola Bay based on nitrogen isotope abundance data. In Chapter IV we demonstrate how isotopic variation of sources within a system can confound our interpretations of trophic structure using these methods. We further demonstrate that, in addition to isotopic variation, source inputs and availability may also vary within a given system. This makes comparison among sites more difficult and highlights the need to evaluate isotopic variation in individual systems prior to making comparisons or widespread generalizations about interactions. In Chapter V we apply these methods to a coastal seagrass community. We evaluate isotopic abundances in sources in consumers from the site. Then we apply the mixing model we develop in Chapter II to determine organic matter source utilization by consumers. Finally, we evaluate trophic level of individual consumers and trophic structure of the system based on nitrogen isotopic abundances. We demonstrate that source isotopic abundances differ from those same sources in the freshwater estuarine habitats. We also show that, while benthic organic matter was an important source in Apalachicola Bay, epiphytes provide the major organic matter source supporting consumers in the seagrass habitat. We use source utilization information and trophic level to assign consumers to trophic guilds in this system. The variety of organic matter source utilization is thought to contribute to the high levels of productivity found in this region. In addition to natural tracers, such as isotope abundances, we have also used organic pollutants as tracers of habitat utilization in the Florida Big Bend region. Organic contaminants found in coastal waters include compounds such as DDTs, PCBs, and chlordanes. Although no longer produced in the U.S., their historically wide-spread use and resistance to degradation contributes to their persistence in marine biota. We present data on chemical concentrations and congener profiles in bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) and two abundant fish species from this region in Chapter VI. Although this area has been called "pristine" by previous researchers, we demonstrate the relativeness of this term, revealing that even the "forgotten coast" has been influenced by these ubiquitous contaminants. We use these compounds as tracers to evaluate bottlenose dolphin habitat utilization patterns in Florida Big Bend coastal waters. We found that the dolphins we sampled have differences in concentrations and patterns of contaminant loading indicating preference for feeding in specific areas and bays. Our results agree with suggestions based on sighting information that animals from the east and west regions of our study site rarely comingle and that even in the western site, individual animals express preferences for either St Joseph or St Andrews Bay foraging grounds.
Estuary, Stable Isotope Analysis, Food Web, Trophic Web, Apalachicola Bay, Florida
Date of Defense: January 29, 2010.
A Dissertation submitted to the Department of Oceanography in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.
Includes bibliographical references.
Florida State University