Investigating Trophic Interactions of Deep-sea Animals (Sharks, Teleosts, and Mobile scavengers) in the Gulf of Mexico Using Stable Isotope Analysis Dissertation

thesis or dissertation chair

fiu authors

  • Churchill, Diana A


  • The deep-sea is the largest habitat on earth, containing over 90 percent of the world’s oceans and home to over 20,000 species. Deep-sea ecosystems are increasingly impacted by human activities including fishing and oil extraction. To understand potential impacts on deep-sea food webs, it is crucial to gather baseline data in these systems. I quantified the trophic interactions of three groups of deep-water animals across a range of trophic levels living in the northern and eastern Gulf of Mexico using stable isotope analysis. First, I propose methods for correcting δ15N values for the presence of nitrogenous metabolic waste products (e.g., urea) in muscle tissue using chemical extractions and/or species-specific mathematical normalizations. Significant differences in δ15N, %N, and C:N values as a result of extractions were observed in eight of ten shark and all three hagfish species. The δ15N values increased, but shifts in %N and C:N values were not unidirectional. Mathematical normalizations for δ15N values were successfully created for four shark and two hagfish species. I then describe the trophic interactions of three consumer assemblages. Carbon isotopic values indicate a heavy reliance on allochthonous nutrient inputs from surface waters. Nitrogen isotopic values reveal somewhat atypical taxa as top predators in the deep sea. Shark, teleost, and invertebrate species across a wide range of body sizes are feeding at a similar trophic level. This apparent lack of size structuring could be the result of a high degree of opportunistic scavenging or perhaps feeding at many trophic levels simultaneously in an oligotrophic system. There was a high degree of isotopic niche overlap among species within each consumer assemblage, perhaps the result of limited nutrient resources in the deep-sea. In general, individuals from the northern sampling stations displayed higher δ13C and δ15N values than those from the eastern sites. With the exception of a few species, there were no strong relationships between body size and isotopic values. The present study is among the first characterizations of the trophic structure of deep-sea organisms in the Gulf of Mexico and establishes system baselines for future studies describing deep-water systems and investigating anthropogenic impacts.

publication date

  • July 2, 2015


  • Gulf of Mexico
  • deep-sea
  • elasmobranch
  • food web
  • scavenger
  • stable isotope
  • teleost
  • trophic ecology

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)