Fatty acid analyses reveal high degrees of omnivory and dietary plasticity in pond-dwelling tadpoles

Matt R. Whiles, Michail I. Gladyshev, Nadezda N. Sushchik, Olesia N. Makhutova, Galina S. Kalachova, Scot D. Peterson, Kurt J. Regester

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


1. Understanding the trophic relationships of consumers is central to ecology, but constructing meaningful food webs is often difficult because of a lack of detailed information on consumption versus assimilation and high degrees of omnivory.2. We used fatty acid analyses to examine the trophic relationships of three common larval anurans (Pseudacris crucifer, Lithobates catesbeianus and Lithobates clamitans) that are often classified as grazers or detritivores. Tadpoles and potential food sources were sampled in four ponds in southern Illinois and analysed for fatty acid composition. Single linkage cluster analysis was then used to compare fatty acid profiles among tadpole gut contents, tadpole muscle tissues and available food resources.3. Diets varied among species and within species among ponds, but organic sediments consistently contributed most to the fatty acid composition of the gut contents of all species. Fatty acid profiles also indicated that larval insects and phytoplankton were consumed by both L. catesbeianus and L. clamitans in one pond, while L. clamitans and P. crucifer consumed mainly periphyton along with sediments in another pond, and these diet differences appeared linked to physical differences among ponds, with periphyton and/or phytoplankton contributing more to tadpole diets in less shaded ponds.4. The fatty acid composition of muscle tissues of L. clamitans, the dominant tadpole in these systems, indicated that plant detritus and bacteria, which were the dominant components of organic sediments in the ponds, were common components of the assimilatory diet.5. Results demonstrate the utility of fatty acid analyses for assessing both consumption and assimilation. The tadpole assemblages we examined derive much of their energy from heterotrophic and allochthonous sources and exhibit high dietary plasticity. This information will allow for more accurate and comprehensive assessments of trophic interactions in freshwater habitats, as well as aid in amphibian conservation, management and captive propagation efforts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1533-1547
Number of pages15
JournalFreshwater Biology
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • Anura
  • Diet
  • Food web
  • Foraging
  • Gut contents
  • Omnivory
  • Selective feeding

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Aquatic Science


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