Individual diet variation in a marine fish assemblage: Optimal Foraging Theory, Niche Variation Hypothesis and functional identity

Individual diet variation (i.e. diet variation among individuals) impacts intra- and inter-specific interactions. Investigating its sources and relationship with species trophic niche organization is important for understanding community structure and dynamics. Individual diet variation may increase with intra-specific phenotypic (or “individual state”) variation and habitat variability, according to Optimal Foraging Theory (OFT), and with species trophic niche width, according to the Niche Variation Hypothesis (NVH). OFT proposes “proximate sources” of individual diet variation such as variations in habitat or size whereas NVH relies on “ultimate sources” related to the competitive balance between intra- and inter-specific competitions. The latter implies as a corollary that species trophic niche overlap, taken as inter-specific competition measure, decreases as species niche width and individual niche variation increase. We tested the complementary predictions of OFT and NVH in a marine fish assemblage using stomach content data and associated trophic niche metrics. The NVH predictions were tested between species of the assemblage and decomposed into a between- and a within-functional group components to assess the potential influence of species’ ecological function. For most species, individual diet variation and niche overlap were consistently larger than expected. Individual diet variation increased with intra-specific variability in individual state and habitat, as expected from OFT. It also increased with species niche width but in compliance with the null expectation, thus not supporting the NVH. In contrast, species niche overlap increased significantly less than null expectation with both species niche width and individual diet variation, supporting NVH corollary. The between- and within-functional group components of the NVH relationships were consistent with those between species at the assemblage level. Changing the number of prey categories used to describe diet (from 16 to 41) did not change the results qualitatively. These results suggest that, besides proximate sources, intra-specific competition favors higher individual diet variation than expected while inter-specific competition limits the increase of individual diet variation and of species niche overlap with species niche expansion. This reveals partial trophic resources partitioning between species. Various niche metrics used in combination allow inferring competition effects on trophic niches’ organization within communities.


Specialization, Trophic similarity, Size-dependent diet variation, English Channel, Semi-enclosed sea

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Cachera Marie, Ernande Bruno, Villanueva Ching-Maria, Lefebvre Sebastien (2017). Individual diet variation in a marine fish assemblage: Optimal Foraging Theory, Niche Variation Hypothesis and functional identity. Journal Of Sea Research. 120. 60-71.,

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