The trophic ecology of Caribbean reef sharks (Carcharhinus perezi) relative to other large teleost predators on an isolated coral atoll.

Bulk stable isotope analysis was used to assess the trophic level and foraging habitats of Caribbean reef sharks (Carcharhinus perezi) compared to three large sympatric predatory teleosts (the Nassau grouper Epinephelus striatus, black grouper Mycteroperca bonaci, and great barracuda Sphyraena barracuda) in an isolated Caribbean coral reef ecosystem. Models and empirical studies have suggested that the depletion of large-bodied sharks in coral reef ecosystems triggers a trophic cascade that could affect the benthic community, favoring algae over coral. The hypothesized cascade is based on the premise that sharks prey on large piscivorous teleost fish that in turn prey on key herbivorous fish. Analysis of nitrogen-stable isotopes (δ15N) from white muscle tissue revealed neither adult or juvenile Caribbean reef sharks were significantly enriched in 15N compared with sympatric predatory teleost species. Linear regression found no evidence of an ontogenetic increase in nitrogen with increasing body size for Caribbean reef sharks; however, there was a significant positive relationship between body size and carbon isotope (δ13C) values. These results suggest that Caribbean reef sharks in isolated systems do not act as the apex predator in coral reef ecosystems primarily feeding on large-bodied sympatric teleosts. Instead, Caribbean reef sharks form part of an upper trophic-level predator guild alongside large-bodied teleosts, which makes the predicted trophic cascade as a result of the removal of reef sharks unlikely. Moreover, the body size–δ13C relationship suggests Caribbean reef sharks exhibit ontogenetic and individual variation in where they feed. The ecological role of this species is, therefore, complex and contextual, similar to carcharhinid species in the Indo-Pacific, emphasizing the need to further elucidate the interactions between reef sharks and the overall coral reef ecosystem so as to best inform effective conservation and management of the species.

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