Ontogenetic shifts in prey selection and foraging behaviour of larval and early juvenile alligator gar (Atractosteus spatula)

Steven E. Butler, Lisa M. Einfalt, Asma A. Abushweka, David H. Wahl

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The early foraging ecology of alligator gar (Atractosteus spatula) is poorly documented, with little information available on young-of-year food habits or ontogenetic diet shifts. We conducted laboratory experiments to quantify prey selection and foraging behaviours of larval and early juvenile alligator gar (16–80 mm TL) simultaneously offered zooplankton, chironomid larvae and one of three densities of fish prey. The smallest size groups of alligator gar consumed zooplankton almost exclusively, but with increasing size, selection for zooplankton declined and selection for fish prey increased. At higher densities of fish prey, alligator gar exhibited lower selection for zooplankton and positively selected for fish at smaller sizes. Ingestion efficiencies for chironomids were considerably lower than for zooplankton or fish prey, resulting in low rates of consumption and negative selection for chironomids by all size groups of alligator gar. Fish prey elicited a different foraging response from alligator gar than zooplankton or chironomids, as alligator gar pursued and struck at fish over longer distances than for other prey types. With increasing size, alligator gar used a wider vertical range of the water column for foraging, changed their strike tactics and exhibited decreased handling times for zooplankton and fish. These observations indicate that alligator gar undergo several functional and behavioural changes during early ontogeny that facilitate a rapid transition to piscivory, but fish prey density strongly affects prey consumption patterns and the size at which alligator gar transition to piscivory.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)385-395
Number of pages11
JournalEcology of Freshwater Fish
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 2019


  • INHS
  • early life history
  • prey selection
  • foraging behaviour
  • piscivory
  • alligator gar
  • ontogeny

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Aquatic Science
  • Ecology


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