Publication Date



Open access

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PHD)


Marine Biology and Fisheries (Marine)

Date of Defense


First Committee Member

Joseph E. Serafy

Second Committee Member

Gary Thomas

Third Committee Member

Diego Lirman

Fourth Committee Member

Larry E. Brand

Fifth Committee Member

Michael R. Heithaus

Sixth Committee Member

Todd Kellison


The combined effects of food availability and predation risk on fish foraging behavior have been investigated via both laboratory and field experiments, primarily in temperate, freshwater systems and during daylight hours. In contrast, relatively little attention has been directed towards fish foraging decisions along subtropical shorelines, which serve as nursery grounds for a variety of economically important fishes, as well as at night, when many species emerge from refuges to feed. The mangrove-seagrass ecotone and adjacent seagrass beds constitute nocturnal feeding grounds for fish secondary-tertiary consumers. In subtropical Biscayne Bay, Florida (USA), I investigated the influences of food and risk on nocturnal seagrass use by gray snapper (Lutjanus griseus), bluestriped grunt (Haemulon sciurus), great barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda), and seabream (Archosargus rhomboidalis) along a distance gradient, spanning from the mangrove fringe to 120 m from shore. This was accomplished by conducting a series of integrated field and laboratory studies, including: (1) nocturnal seine sampling to determine fish abundance patterns in relation to the mangrove-seagrass interface; (2) fish stomach content analysis to reveal feeding habits and trophic relationships; and (3) diel field tethering experiments to explore nearshore gradients in predation pressure. With these data I tested a priori predictions of fish distributions relative to food and predation risk that were generated from foraging theory: (1) fishes will be distributed across the distance gradient in proportion to their food supply (i.e., ideal free distribution, IFD); or (2) fishes will avoid high risk areas such that their abundances will be lower than predicted by food resources in high-risk habitats (i.e., food-risk trade-off). Results revealed that fish assemblage composition differed by season and distance from shore, with the zone nearest the mangroves generally harboring the lowest densities of late-stage juvenile fishes. Stomach content analysis demonstrated that gray snapper fed on a variety of small fishes and crustaceans, while bluestriped grunt fed primarily on caridean shrimp. Seabream fed almost exclusively on vegetation and great barracuda was almost entirely piscivorous; however, seasonal shifts in diet and feeding habits were evident. Seasonal shifts in major food resource use generally did not correspond with changes in relative abundance of food supply. Seasonal trophic niche breadth differences were evident for gray snapper, great barracuda and bluestriped grunt, while niche breadth was equivalent between seasons for seabream. Based on seasonal food supply in the environment, niche breadth values did not match basic foraging theory predictions, which state niche breadth should expand as preferred food resources become scarce. Tethering experiments indicated that predation rates were highest nearest the mangrove edge and decreased with increasing distance from shore. Moreover, predation pressure at night was nearly twice as high compared to the day. Testing these data against my predictions from foraging theory, I found that none of the fishes examined (gray snapper, seabream and bluestriped grunt) were distributed according to IFD. Seabream and gray snapper avoided foraging close to the mangrove-edge, where their food was most abundant, but risk was highest. Bluestriped grunt appeared to forage randomly across the distance gradient despite spatial variation in food and predation risk. Overall, results suggest that: (1) spatial patterns of utilization of seagrass habitat adjacent to the mangrove-seagrass ecotone differs by species, life-stage and season; (2) Seasonal shifts in diet were not correlated with changes in relative abundance of food supply; (3) trophic niche breadth of late juveniles did not expand with declines in their food resources; (4) the mangrove-seagrass ecotone appears to serve as a hunting corridor for predators targeting juvenile fishes moving about the mangroves; and (5) two of the three species examined appeared to give up food in return for safety by avoiding foraging near the mangroves, despite high food availability.


Porgy; Sharks; Edge Effects; Optimal Foraging