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Prey-switching does not protect a generalist turtle from bioenergetic consequences when its preferred food is scarce

Cite this dataset

Van Dyke, James et al. (2020). Prey-switching does not protect a generalist turtle from bioenergetic consequences when its preferred food is scarce [Dataset]. Dryad.


Background: Optimal foraging theory explains how animals make foraging decisions based on the availability, nutritional content, and handling times of different food types. Generalists solve this problem by consuming a variety of food types, and switch between them with relative ease. Specialists eat few food types, and may starve if those food types are not available. We integrated stable isotope analyses with previously-published stomach contents and environmental data to investigate how the foraging ecologies of three sympatric freshwater turtle species vary across four wetlands that differ in turbidity and primary producer abundance.  

Results: We found that the generalist Emydura macquarii consumes a varied diet (but mostly filamentous green algae) when primary producers are available and water is clear, but switches to a more carnivorous diet when primary producers are scarce, following the predictions of optimal foraging theory. In contrast, two more-specialized carnivorous species, Chelodina expansa and Chelodina longicollis, do not differ in diet across wetlands, and interspecific competition may increase where E. macquarii is carnivorous. When forced to be more carnivorous, E. macquarii exhibits higher rates of empty stomachs, and female turtles have reduced body condition, but neither Chelodina species are affected.  

Conclusions: Our results provide support for optimal foraging theory, but also show that the ability to change diet does not protect the generalist from experiencing lower foraging success when its preferred food is rare, with direct consequences for their energy budgets. Our results have conservation implications because wetlands in the Murray-Darling river system are increasingly turbid and have low macrophyte abundance, and all three species are declining.


Please see Petrov et al. manuscript for details on data collection and analysis

Usage notes

Please see uploaded ReadMe file


Australian Research Council, Award: LP140100011