MEPS 143:65-75 (1996)  -  doi:10.3354/meps143065

Prey switching behaviour in the planktonic copepod Acartia tonsa

Kiørboe T, Saiz E, Viitasalo M

The copepod Acartia tonsa has 2 different prey encounter strategies. It can generate a feeding current to encounter and capture immobile prey (suspension feeding) or it can sink slowly and perceive motile prey by means of mechanoreceptors on the antennae (ambush feeding). We hypothesized that A. tonsa adopts the feeding mode that generates the highest energy intake rate; i.e. that prey selection changes according to the relative concentrations of alternative prey (prey switching) and that the copepods spend disproportionately more time in the feeding mode that provides the greatest reward. Based on earlier observations, we also hypothesized that turbulence changes food selection towards motile prey. We tested these hypotheses by examining feeding rates and behaviour in adult females of A. tonsa feeding in mixtures of 2 prey organisms, a diatom (Thalassiosira weissflogii) and a ciliate (Strombidium sulcatum). Our data demonstrate prey switching in A. tonsa, both in terms of behaviour and in terms of feeding rates on the alternative prey. The time allocated to ambush and suspension feeding changed with the composition of the food, and clearance of diatoms was, accordingly, negatively related to the availability of ciliates. In contrast, clearing of ciliates was almost constant and independent of the availability of the alternative prey (diatoms), probably because this particular ciliate species (in contrast to most other microzooplankters) is unable to escape a feeding current and, thus, can also be captured by suspension feeding copepods. Finally, we demonstrate that turbulence favours the selection of ciliates as prey. We suggest that prey switching by copepods may provide survival windows for microzooplankters during blooms of net phytoplankton because predation pressure from the copepods is then less. This may explain why microzooplankton populations often peak concurrently with net phytoplankton blooms and apparently independently of their own food.


Prey switching · Prey selection · Behaviour · Copepod · Acartia tonsa


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