Dietary shifts across biogeographic scales alter spatial subsidy dynamics

Shelby L. Ziegler, Kenneth W. Able, F. Joel Fodrie

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Over heterogeneous landscapes, organisms and energy move across ecological boundaries and this can have profound effects on overall ecosystem functioning. Both abiotic and biotic factors along habitat boundaries may facilitate or impede key species interactions that drive these energy flows—especially along the land–sea interface. We synthesized the literature detailing estuarine fish diets and habitat characteristics of salt marshes from U.S. East and Gulf coasts to determine patterns and drivers of cross-boundary trophic transfers at the land–sea interface. Notably, marsh-platform species (i.e., killifishes, fiddler crabs) appear virtually absent in the diets of transient estuarine fishes in the Gulf of Mexico, while along the South Atlantic and Mid-Atlantic Bights, marsh-platform species appear regularly in the diets of many transient estuarine fishes. Tidal amplitude varied across these three biogeographic regions and likely regulates the availability of marsh-platform species to transient estuarine fishes via both access to the marsh surface for marine predators and emergence of marsh-resident prey into the adjacent estuary (i.e., higher tidal amplitude increases predator–prey encounter rates). Surprisingly, marsh shoot density was positively correlated with the presence of marsh-platform species in the diet, but this pattern appears to be mediated by increased tidal amplitude, suggesting the mode and periodicity of abiotic cycles drive diet structure of transient estuarine fishes more so than local habitat structural complexity. Subsequently, these processes likely influence the degree to which “trophic relay” moves energy from the marsh toward the open estuary. Understanding the dynamics that determine energy flows, spatial subsidies, and ultimately, ecosystem-level productivity, is essential for implementation of holistic ecosystem-based approaches to conserve and manage complex landscape mosaics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere02980
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - Dec 1 2019


All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology


  • energy subsidies
  • estuary
  • fish
  • nekton diets
  • outwelling
  • salt marsh
  • tide

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