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More than a corridor: use of a main stem stream as supplemental foraging habitat by a brook trout metapopulation

Huntsman, Brock M., Petty, J. Todd, Sharma, Shikha, Merriam, Eric R.
Oecologia 2016 v.182 no.2 pp. 463-473
Bayesian theory, Salvelinus fontinalis, carbon, fish, foraging, habitats, nitrogen, stable isotopes, statistical models, streams, surface water, watersheds, West Virginia
Coldwater fishes in streams, such as brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis), typically are headwater specialists that occasionally expand distributions downstream to larger water bodies. It is unclear, however, whether larger streams function simply as dispersal corridors connecting headwater subpopulations, or as critical foraging habitat needed to sustain large mobile brook trout. Stable isotopes (δ¹³C and δ¹⁵N) and a hierarchical Bayesian mixing model analysis was used to identify brook trout that foraged in main stem versus headwater streams of the Shavers Fork watershed, West Virginia. Headwater subpopulations were composed of headwater and to a lesser extent main stem foraging individuals. However, there was a strong relationship between brook trout size and main stem prey contributions. The average brook trout foraging on headwater prey were limited to 126 mm standard length. This size was identified by mixing models as a point where productivity support switched from headwater to main stem dependency. These results, similar to other studies conducted in this watershed, support the hypothesis that productive main stem habitat maintain large brook trout and potentially facilitates dispersal among headwater subpopulations. Consequently, loss of supplementary main stem foraging habitats may explain loss of large, mobile fish and subsequent isolation of headwater subpopulations in other central Appalachian watersheds.