Publication Date



Open access

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PHD)


Marine Biology and Fisheries (Marine)

Date of Defense


First Committee Member

Robert K. Cowen

Second Committee Member

Su Sponaugle

Third Committee Member

Sharon L. Smith

Fourth Committee Member

Gary L. Hitchcock

Fifth Committee Member

Don L. DeAngelis


The processes influencing larval fish survival in the low-latitude open ocean are poorly understood, especially with regard to feeding. As part of a large-scale study that included two years of monthly sampling in the Straits of Florida (SOF), the objectives of this dissertation were to elucidate the larval fish feeding behaviors and strategies of 1) istiophorid billfishes, 2) tunas, and 3) coral reef fishes, while also 4) characterizing the feeding environment, synthesizing the dominant trophic pathways to fish larvae, and reviewing the literature for evidence of latitudinal distinctions in larval fish trophodynamics. Larval billfishes exhibited highly selective feeding, and their diets were numerically dominated (90%) by two genera of crustaceans, Farranula copepods and Evadne cladocerans. These prey were consumed throughout early larval ontogeny, from first-feeding through piscivorous lengths (> 5 mm), until piscivory became exclusive near 12 mm. High feeding incidence (0.94) and rapid digestion (~3.5 hrs) suggests frequent and successful feeding by billfish larvae. For tunas, nearly all larvae examined (>98%) contained prey. Thunnus spp. exhibited a mixed diet, while skipjack, little tunny, and Auxis spp. nearly exclusively consumed appendicularians. All four tuna taxa co-occurred in the western SOF where prey was more abundant, while in the central and eastern SOF (where prey availability was lower), only Thunnus spp. and skipjack were present. Additionally, these two taxa exhibited significantly different vertical distributions. Estimates of predatory impact indicated the potential for depletion of resources in the absence of the spatial and dietary niches of larval tunas. Coral reef fish families examined included Serranidae, Lutjanidae, Mullidae, Pomacentridae, Labridae, Scaridae, and Acanthuridae. Feeding incidences were high (0.94 to 1.0) for all taxa except scarids (0.04), and diets were narrow and predator-specific. Cluster analysis yielded clear groupings based on the selective feeding exhibited by the taxa, while within taxa, canonical correspondence analysis illustrated the change in diet with a variety of variables. The physical and biological environment varied markedly across the SOF, largely influenced by the Florida Current. Characteristics examined included thermocline depth, fluorescence, and abundances of total plankton and copepod nauplii. The feeding ecologies of the 21 taxa of fish larvae in this work were synthesized into qualitative and quantitative webs that illustrate the variable trophodynamic strategies of larvae in the SOF and the levels of community reliance upon zooplankton prey types. A review of 170 investigations on larval fish feeding revealed notable distinctions between high- and low-latitude regions, highlighting the substantial variability across environments in the role of larval fishes within the planktonic food web.


Zooplankton; Prey Selectivity; Predatory Impact; Straits Of Florida; Diets; Feeding; Larval Fish; Fish Larvae