MEPS 261:283-297 (2003)  -  doi:10.3354/meps261283

Effects of clam species dominance on nutrient and energy acquisition by spectacled eiders in the Bering Sea

Samantha E. Richman, James R. Lovvorn*

Department of Zoology, University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyoming 82071, USA
*Corresponding author. Email:

ABSTRACT: The spectacled eider Somateria fischeri, a Œthreatened¹ species, winters in pack ice of the Bering Sea. In dives of 40 to 70 m for benthic invertebrates, the high energy costs of foraging are offset by high benthic biomass. However, there is evidence that the dominant clam prey has changed from Macoma calcarea to Nuculana radiata, perhaps adversely affecting the foraging energetics of the eiders. We studied effects of differences in nutrient and energy content, crushing resistance of shells, digestibility, gut retention time, areal density, shell length, and depth in the sediments on the relative foraging value of M. calcarea versus N. radiata. To avoid using a Œthreatened¹ species for experiments, we used common eiders Somateria mollissima for digestion studies and white-winged scoters Melanitta fusca (the same size as spectacled eiders) for foraging studies. For the prey size range comprising 93% of the eiders' diet (18 to 30 mm), M. calcarea including shells was lower in ash, and higher in nitrogen, lipid, and energy, than N. radiata. Digestibility was 76% for M. calcarea versus 67% for N. radiata, but gut retention time did not differ. In a tensometer, crushing resistance was much higher for N. radiata than M. calcarea for shells 18 to 24 mm long, but did not differ for 24 to 30 mm because shells of N. radiata were often severely abraded. For scoters foraging on freshly thawed Macoma balthica buried in sand in an aquarium 1.8 m deep, intake (no. s-1) decreased by 31% when burial depth in the sediments was increased from 4 to 7 cm; most N. radiata are <4 cm deep, and most M. balthica eaten by eiders are probably 7 to 10 cm deep. Considering energy content, digestibility, and intake rates at these burial depths for 1200 clams m-2, energy assimilated was 14 to 19% higher for N. radiata than M. calcarea of the same length classes. However, larger M. calcarea yielded 58% higher intake of assimilable energy than smaller N. radiata. These patterns emphasize that relative foraging value depends strongly on size (age) structures of different prey populations, which vary with recruitment, growth, and mortality in different seasons and years. Our results show that impacts of long-term benthic change on eiders depend not only on shifts in total clam abundance, but also on species differences in digestibility, size structure, and size-dependent nutrient content and burial depth.

KEY WORDS: Spectacled eider · Foraging energetics · Bering Sea · Food intake rate · Functional response · Digestibility · Retention time · Sea duck

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