Assessing western gull predation on purple sea urchins in the rocky intertidal using optimal foraging theory

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Canadian Journal of Zoology




Purple sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus (Stimpson, 1857)) are abundant grazing invertebrates that can have a major impact on the rocky intertidal community. Predators can control the urchin population and indirectly reduce grazing activity. We determined the effects of western gull (Larus occidentalis Audubon, 1839) predation on purple sea urchins in the rocky intertidal using the framework of optimal foraging theory and taking into account different prey-handling techniques. We recorded the foraging behavior of gulls, measured urchin availability, and estimated prey caloric content with bomb calorimetry. Western gulls selected purple sea urchins significantly more than other prey items (snails (genus Tegula Lesson, 1835), limpets (genus Collisella Dall, 1871), sea stars (Pisaster giganteus (Stimpson, 1857) and Pisaster ochraceus (Brandt, 1835))). Larger urchins contained relatively more calories. Gulls foraged optimally when pecking by frequently selecting the most profitable size class. However, gulls chose smaller urchins than expected when air-dropping, which could have been influenced by group size and age. Gulls selected smaller purple sea urchins when foraging in larger groups likely owing to the risk of kleptoparasitism. Adults chose larger, and juveniles smaller, urchins when air-dropping, suggesting that juveniles are less experienced in foraging techniques. We estimated that gull predation could affect up to one third of the sea urchin populations locally, which could increase species diversity in the rocky intertidal community.