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Highly unsaturated fatty acids in nature: what we know and what we need to learn

Twining, Cornelia W., Brenna, J. Thomas, Hairston, Nelson G., Jr., Flecker, Alexander S.
Oikos 2016 v.125 no.6 pp. 749-760
aquatic food webs, behavior change, diet, ecosystems, food quality, food research, highly unsaturated fatty acids, humans, invertebrates, secondary productivity, species diversity, subsidies, supply balance, tracer techniques, zooplankton
The supply and demand of omega‐3 highly unsaturated fatty acids (ω‐3 HUFA) in natural ecosystems may lead to resource limitation in a diverse array of animal taxa. Here, we review why food quality in terms of ω‐3 HUFAs is important, particularly for neural tissue, across a diversity of animal taxa ranging from invertebrate zooplankton to vertebrates (including humans). Our review is focused on ω‐3 HUFAs rather than other unsaturated fatty acids because these compounds are especially important biochemically, but scarce in nature. We discuss the dichotomy between ω‐3 HUFA availability between aquatic primary producers, which are often rich in these compounds, and terrestrial primary producers, which are contain little to none of them. We describe the use of fatty acids as qualitative and quantitative tracers for reconstructing animal diets in natural ecosystems. Next, we discuss both direct and indirect ecological implications of ω‐3 HUFA limitation at the individual, population, food web, and ecosystem scales, which include: changes in behavior, species composition, secondary production rates, trophic transfer efficiency and cross‐ecosystem subsidies. We finish by highlighting future research priorities including a need for more research on ω‐3 HUFAs in terrestrial systems, more research their importance for higher order consumers, and more research on the food web and ecosystem‐scale effects of ω‐3 HUFA limitation. Synthesis Mismatches between the supply of and demand for omega‐3 highly unsaturated fatty acids (ω‐3 HUFA) in natural ecosystems have the potential to result in resource limitation across a diverse array of ecosystems. We combined perspectives from ecology and nutritional science to develop a unified synthesis of ω‐3 HUFA ecology. We reviewed the importance of ω‐3 HUFAs for animals, the striking differences in ω‐3 HUFA availability at the base of terrestrial versus aquatic food webs, and the implications of ω‐3 HUFA limitation for food webs. We finished by highlighting research priorities in the field including more research on ω‐3 HUFAs in terrestrial systems, on higher order consumers, and at the food web and ecosystem‐scales.