Physical factors influencing the distribution of a top predator in a subtropical oligotrophic estuary

Heithaus, Michael R., Bryan K. Delius, Aaron J. Wirsing, Meagan M. Dunphy-Daly

Limnol. Oceanogr., 54(2), 2009, 472-482 | DOI: 10.4319/lo.2009.54.2.0472

ABSTRACT: We used longline fishing to determine the effects of distance from the ocean, season, and short-term variation in abiotic conditions on the abundance of juvenile bull sharks (Carcharhinus leucas) in an estuary of the Florida Everglades, U.S.A. Logistic regression revealed that young-of-the-year sharks were concentrated at a protected site 20 km upstream and were present in greater abundance when dissolved oxygen (DO) levels were high. For older juvenile sharks (age 1+), DO levels had the greatest influence on catch probabilities followed by distance from the ocean; they were most likely to be caught at sites with >3.5 mg L-1 DO and on the main branch of the river 20 km upstream. Salinity had a relatively small effect on catch rates and there were no seasonal shifts in shark distribution. Our results highlight the importance of considering DO as a possible driver of top predator distributions in estuaries, even in the absence of hypoxia. In Everglades estuaries hydrological drivers that affect DO levels (e.g., groundwater discharge, modification of primary productivity through nutrient fluxes) will be important in determining shark distributions, and the effects of planned ecosystem restoration efforts on bull sharks will not simply be mediated by changing salinity regimes and the location of the oligohaline zone. More generally, variation in DO levels could structure the nature and spatiotemporal pattern of top predator effects in the coastal Everglades, and other tropical and subtropical estuaries, because of interspecific variation in reliance on DO within the top predator guild.

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