Structure and functioning of intertidal food webs along an avian flyway: A comparative approach using stable isotopes

Teresa Catry*, Pedro M. Lourenço, Ricardo J. Lopes, Camilo Carneiro, José A. Alves, Joana Costa, Hamid Rguibi-Idrissi, Stuart Bearhop, Theunis Piersma, José P. Granadeiro

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Citations (Scopus)


Food webs and trophic dynamics of coastal systems have been the focus of intense research throughout the world, as they prove to be critical in understanding ecosystem processes and functions. However, very few studies have undertaken a quantitative comparison of entire food webs from a key consumer perspective across a broad geographical area, limiting relevant comparisons among systems with distinct biotic and abiotic components. We investigate the structure and functioning of food webs in four tidal ecosystems of international importance for migratory shorebirds along the East Atlantic Flyway: Tejo estuary in Portugal, Sidi Moussa in Morocco, Banc d'Arguin in Mauritania and Bijagós archipelago in Guinea-Bissau. Basal food sources, shorebirds and their prey (benthic invertebrates) were sampled in all areas, and Bayesian stable isotope mixing models and community-wide metrics were used in a comparative analysis among areas. Significant differences among study areas were found in the structure of food webs, as well as in the relative importance of basal resource pools supporting each food web. Overall, the food web of Banc d'Arguin was characterized by lower trophic diversity and higher functional redundancy than the other sites. This result might be explained by the low number of trophic pathways of organic matter transfer in this seagrass-dominated system which, as a fossil estuary, lacks inputs from both freshwater and nutrient-rich offshore oceanic waters. Structure of shorebird communities was consistent with the main organizational patterns found for each food web, highlighting the less diverse character of the community of Banc d'Arguin. At Banc d'Arguin and Bijagós archipelago, which displayed the smallest and largest isotopic niche widths in bird assemblage, respectively, mean niche overlap among species was low, suggesting high interspecific partitioning in resource use. Tropical systems typically offer comparatively lower harvestable prey biomass for shorebirds and might thus strengthen interspecific competition, leading to low niche overlap among species. Our study reveals relevant differences in the structure of food webs and shorebird communities in coastal areas along an avian flyway. While differences in trophic redundancy of food webs point to distinct levels of ecosystem resilience, contrasts in the organization of shorebird communities highlight the plasticity in the foraging behaviour of species inhabiting areas with distinct environmental conditions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)468-478
Number of pages11
JournalFunctional Ecology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2016

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Expeditions to Banc d''Arguin received the logistic support of Lemhaba Ould Yarba and the PNBA staff in Iwik station. Ant?nio Ara?jo (MAVA) provided support during expedition preparation, and colleagues from NIOZ, particularly Dr Piet van den Hout and Dr Jan van Gils helped with logistics and shared their expertise. We thank Alfredo da Silva, Aissa Regalla and other staff from IBAP, as well as Jo?ozinho S? and Hamilton Monteiro (GPC), for their help and permission to work in Guinea-Bissau. Paulo Catry provided advice on Bijag?s and Maria Dias, Miguel Lecoq and Mohamed Henriques helped during fieldwork. Latifa Joulami, Sara Pardal, Miguel Ara?jo and Lu?s da Silva participated in expeditions to Sidi Moussa, and Rhimou El Hamoumi provided logistic help. We also thank all volunteers helping in fieldwork at the Tejo estuary, in particular Jo?o Guilherme, In?s Catry, Pete Potts Ruth Croger and the Farlington Ringing Group. The manuscript beneficiated from the comments of two anonymous referees. All sampling was performed under permits 82/2012/COLH, 394/ 2014/CAPT, 213/2012, 226/2013 and 227/2014 (ICNB) and 22/2013 and 3/ 2014 (HCEFLCD). This study was supported by Funda??o para a Ci?ncia e Tecnologia, through Project ''Invisible Links'' (PTDC/MAR/119920/2010) and postdoctoral grants to TC (SFRH/BPD/46967/2008 and SFRH/BPD/ 102255/2014), PML (SFRH/BPD/84237/2012), RJL (SFRH/BPD/40786/ 2007 and SFRH/BPD/84141/2012) and JAA (SFRH/BPD/91527/2012). TP''s contribution was supported by operational grants from Royal NIOZ and NWO-ALW TOP grant ''Shorebirds in space'' (854.11.004).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 British Ecological Society.

Other keywords

  • Bayesian mixing models and community metrics
  • Coastal tidal ecosystems
  • Migratory shorebirds
  • Trophic structure


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