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The Associations of Little Blue Heron Prey and Vegetation Communities in Two Subtropical Coastal Ecosystems

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Date Issued:
2018
Abstract/Description:
Shallow water availability coupled with anthropogenic degradation of seagrass beds limits wading bird food resources in dynamic coastal ecosystems. Identifying prey species critical to wading bird reproductive success and the environmental drivers of key prey species abundance is important for understanding how environmental stressors influence prey and change the quality of foraging patches. Little Blue Herons (Egretta caerulea) are reportedly generalists eating insects, crustaceans, and fish; however, the proportions of prey items in the diet may shift spatially and temporally from freshwater to marine systems during breeding and non-breeding periods. I investigated prey selection by Little Blue Herons in Florida at the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge and the western Florida Bay, during 2016 and 2017 breeding seasons by investigating prey availability at low-tide locations along mudflats compared to stomach regurgitate samples collected from Little Blue Heron chicks 1 to 4 weeks old. Little Blue Herons selected Gulf toadfish (Opsanus beta) and prawns (Farfantepenaeus spp.) from the estuarine environment, but also consumed terrestrial prey (e.g. tree crabs) suggesting Little Blue Heron foraging habitat is not restricted to tidal flats. Additionally, these results support the characterization of Little Blue Herons as a generalist. After identifying important prey species, I modeled the associations of selected prey species with submerged aquatic vegetation density and abiotic variables to better understand habitat preferences and important habitat characteristics that drive prey density. Models support total seagrass density and algal density as having the greatest effect on prey selected by Little Blue Herons. Prawn density has a strong positive association with seagrass density. Gulf toadfish (Opsanus beta) and prawns (Farfantepenaeus spp.) had strong positive association with algae while pipefish (Syngnathidae) had a strong negative association with algae suggesting algae density in seagrass meadows should be considered when assessing the quality of seagrass meadows for Little Blue Heron prey and habitat suitability. My results varied from previous studies where prawns and gulf toadfish were associated with specific seagrass species. Therefore, some Little Blue Heron prey species in south Florida may not be affected by changes in submerged aquatic vegetation community composition if submerged aquatic vegetation densities remain constant. Studies are needed that clarify the complex interactions between prey and specific habitat metrics to validate the strength of landscape scale drivers of wading bird prey densities in dynamic coastal ecosystems and to determine how these communities will respond to anthropogenic environmental change.
Title: The Associations of Little Blue Heron Prey and Vegetation Communities in Two Subtropical Coastal Ecosystems.
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Name(s): Kohler, Emilie R., author
Gawlik, Dale E., Thesis advisor
Florida Atlantic University, Degree grantor
Charles E. Schmidt College of Science
Department of Biological Sciences
Type of Resource: text
Genre: Electronic Thesis Or Dissertation
Date Created: 2018
Date Issued: 2018
Publisher: Florida Atlantic University
Place of Publication: Boca Raton, Fla.
Physical Form: application/pdf
Extent: 93 p.
Language(s): English
Abstract/Description: Shallow water availability coupled with anthropogenic degradation of seagrass beds limits wading bird food resources in dynamic coastal ecosystems. Identifying prey species critical to wading bird reproductive success and the environmental drivers of key prey species abundance is important for understanding how environmental stressors influence prey and change the quality of foraging patches. Little Blue Herons (Egretta caerulea) are reportedly generalists eating insects, crustaceans, and fish; however, the proportions of prey items in the diet may shift spatially and temporally from freshwater to marine systems during breeding and non-breeding periods. I investigated prey selection by Little Blue Herons in Florida at the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge and the western Florida Bay, during 2016 and 2017 breeding seasons by investigating prey availability at low-tide locations along mudflats compared to stomach regurgitate samples collected from Little Blue Heron chicks 1 to 4 weeks old. Little Blue Herons selected Gulf toadfish (Opsanus beta) and prawns (Farfantepenaeus spp.) from the estuarine environment, but also consumed terrestrial prey (e.g. tree crabs) suggesting Little Blue Heron foraging habitat is not restricted to tidal flats. Additionally, these results support the characterization of Little Blue Herons as a generalist. After identifying important prey species, I modeled the associations of selected prey species with submerged aquatic vegetation density and abiotic variables to better understand habitat preferences and important habitat characteristics that drive prey density. Models support total seagrass density and algal density as having the greatest effect on prey selected by Little Blue Herons. Prawn density has a strong positive association with seagrass density. Gulf toadfish (Opsanus beta) and prawns (Farfantepenaeus spp.) had strong positive association with algae while pipefish (Syngnathidae) had a strong negative association with algae suggesting algae density in seagrass meadows should be considered when assessing the quality of seagrass meadows for Little Blue Heron prey and habitat suitability. My results varied from previous studies where prawns and gulf toadfish were associated with specific seagrass species. Therefore, some Little Blue Heron prey species in south Florida may not be affected by changes in submerged aquatic vegetation community composition if submerged aquatic vegetation densities remain constant. Studies are needed that clarify the complex interactions between prey and specific habitat metrics to validate the strength of landscape scale drivers of wading bird prey densities in dynamic coastal ecosystems and to determine how these communities will respond to anthropogenic environmental change.
Identifier: FA00013156 (IID)
Degree granted: Thesis (M.S.)--Florida Atlantic University, 2018.
Collection: FAU Electronic Theses and Dissertations Collection
Note(s): Includes bibliography.
Subject(s): Herons--Ecology
Egretta
Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge (Fla)
Florida Bay (Fla)
Coastal ecology--Florida
Held by: Florida Atlantic University Libraries
Sublocation: Digital Library
Persistent Link to This Record: http://purl.flvc.org/fau/fd/FA00013156
Use and Reproduction: Copyright © is held by the author with permission granted to Florida Atlantic University to digitize, archive and distribute this item for non-profit research and educational purposes. Any reuse of this item in excess of fair use or other copyright exemptions requires permission of the copyright holder.
Use and Reproduction: http://rightsstatements.org/vocab/InC/1.0/
Host Institution: FAU
Is Part of Series: Florida Atlantic University Digital Library Collections.