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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Spawning salmon disrupt trophic coupling between wolves and ungulate prey in coastal British Columbia

Chris T Darimont124*, Paul C Paquet23 and Thomas E Reimchen1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biology, Box 3020, Stn CSC, University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia, V8W 3N5, Canada,

2 Raincoast Conservation Foundation, Box 77, Denny Island, British Columbia, V0T 1B0, Canada,

3 Faculty of Environmental Design, Professional Faculties Building, Room 2182 University of Calgary, 2500 University Drive NW, Calgary, Alberta, T2N 1N4, Canada

4 Department of Environmental Studies, 405 ISB, University of California, 1156 High Street, Santa Cruz, California, 95060, USA

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BMC Ecology 2008, 8:14  doi:10.1186/1472-6785-8-14

Published: 2 September 2008

Abstract

Background

As a cross-boundary resource subsidy, spawning salmon can strongly affect consumer and ecosystem ecology. Here we examine whether this marine resource can influence a terrestrial wolf-deer (Canis lupus-Odocoileus hemionus) predator-prey system in coastal British Columbia, Canada. Data on resource availability and resource use among eight wolf groups for three seasons over four years allow us to evaluate competing hypotheses that describe salmon as either an alternate resource, consumed in areas where deer are scarce, or as a targeted resource, consumed as a positive function of its availability. Faecal (n = 2203 wolf scats) and isotopic analyses (n = 60 wolf hair samples) provide independent data sets, also allowing us to examine how consistent these common techniques are in estimating foraging behaviour.

Results

At the population level during spring and summer, deer remains occurred in roughly 90 and 95% of faeces respectively. When salmon become available in autumn, however, the population showed a pronounced dietary shift in which deer consumption among groups was negatively correlated (r = -0.77, P < 0.001) with consumption of salmon, which occurred in 40% of all faeces and up to 70% of faeces for some groups. This dietary shift as detected by faecal analysis was correlated with seasonal shifts in δ13C isotopic signatures (r = 0.78; P = 0.008), which were calculated by intra-hair comparisons between segments grown during summer and fall. The magnitude of this seasonal isotopic shift, our proxy for salmon use, was related primarily to estimates of salmon availability, not deer availability, among wolf groups.

Conclusion

Concordance of faecal and isotopic data suggests our intra-hair isotopic methodology provides an accurate proxy for salmon consumption, and might reliably track seasonal dietary shifts in other consumer-resource systems. Use of salmon by wolves as a function of its abundance and the adaptive explanations we provide suggest a long-term and widespread association between wolves and salmon. Seasonally, this system departs from the common wolf-ungulate model. Broad ecological implications include the potential transmission of marine-based disease into terrestrial systems, the effects of marine subsidy on wolf-deer population dynamics, and the distribution of salmon nutrients by wolves into coastal ecosystems.