• Carbon sources and trophic connectivity in seafloor food webs in the Alaska Arctic and sub-Arctic

      Oxtoby, Laura Elizabeth; Wooller, Matthew; O'Brien, Diane; Iken, Katrin; Horstmann, Larissa; Budge, Suzanne (2016-05)
      Stable isotope analysis offers critical insight into organic matter pathways that sustain and link consumers in a food web. Indirect examination of organic matter sources and consumer diets using stable isotope analysis is especially valuable in the Alaska Arctic and sub-Arctic marine realm, where organisms of interest are difficult to observe given their remote habitat and elusive behavior. The research objective of this body of work was to use novel applications of stable isotope analysis to extend our understanding of organic matter sources, trophic pathways, and resource competition among benthic consumers. Microphytobenthos, a community of photosynthesizing unicellular microscopic algal cells on the seafloor sediment, has not been included in stable isotope food web models in the Alaska Arctic and sub-Arctic due to challenges associated with sample collection and analysis. I constrained the isotopic composition of this potential algal source by integrating field measurements, physiological relationships previously established by laboratory studies, and a range of algal growth rates specific to high latitude primary production. Relative to other sources of primary production in the Arctic, sub-Arctic, and lower latitude ecosystems, estimates for stable carbon isotope values of total organic carbon from microphytobenthos in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas were higher than those for Arctic riverine organic matter, but lower than ice algal sources and microphytobenthos measurements from lower latitudes. To further elucidate trophic pathways and resource partitioning among benthic invertebrate consumers, I combined compound-specific stable isotope analysis, a relatively new analytical tool, with fatty acid analysis to estimate proportional contributions of algal sources from ice, open ocean, and surface sediments to common polychaete and bivalve consumers in the Bering Sea. Benthic invertebrates were collected in 2009-2010 and represented a diverse range of feeding strategies, including the suspension/surface deposit-feeding bivalves Macoma calcarea and Ennucula tenuis, the subsurface deposit-feeding bivalve, Nuculana radiata, the head down deposit-feeding polychaete Leitoscoloplos pugettensis, and the predator/scavenger Nephtys spp. Differences in dominant algal sources to these invertebrate consumers corresponded, for the most part, to feeding strategy. Bivalves primarily obtained fatty acids from surface sediments, whereas L. pugettensis obtained fatty acids from a microbially altered phytodetrital fatty acid pool, and Nephtys spp. from ice algal fatty acids acquired indirectly through predation. This multi-proxy compound-specific stable isotope approach was then applied to examine dietary overlap between Pacific walruses (Odobenus rosmarus divergens) and bearded seals (Erignathus barbatus) in 2009-2011 who feed primarily on benthic invertebrate prey. Differences in the relative proportions of fatty acids produced exclusively by benthic prey (non-methylene interrupted fatty acids) indicated that walruses and bearded seals had divergent diets. Proportional contributions of algal sources from ice, open ocean, and surface sediments to the prey consumed by walruses and bearded seals also varied. Walruses consumed prey that relied primarily on benthic and pelagic carbon sources (i.e., suspension/surface and subsurface deposit-feeding bivalves). In contrast, bearded seals consumed prey that relied on benthic and ice algal carbon sources (i.e., omnivorous and predatory benthic invertebrates). In conclusion, this research revealed that, in the recent study years, benthic food webs in the Alaska Arctic and sub-Arctic contained several trophic pathways linking consumers to distinct organic matter sources. Consequently, projected changes in algal production with future climate warming may elicit species-specific responses among benthic organisms.