Delayed ontogenic dietary shift and high levels of omnivory in green turtles (Chelonia mydas) from the NW coast of Africa

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Young green turtles (Chelonia mydas) spend their early lives as oceanic omnivores with a prevalence of animal prey. Once they settle into neritic habitats (recruitment), they are thought to shift rapidly to an herbivorous diet, as revealed by studies in the Greater Caribbean. However, the precise timing of the ontogenic dietary shift and the actual relevance of animal prey in the diet of neritic green turtles are poorly known elsewhere. Stable isotopes of carbon, sulfur and nitrogen in the carapace scutes of 19 green turtles from Mauritania (NW Africa), ranging from 26 to 102 cm in curved carapace length (CCLmin), were analyzed to test the hypothesis of a rapid dietary shift after recruitment. Although the length of residence time in neritic habitats increased with turtle length, as revealed by a significant correlation between turtle length and the δ13C and the δ34S of the scutes, comparison of the δ15N of the innermost and outermost layers of carapace scutes demonstrated that consumption of macrophytes did not always start immediately after recruitment, and turtles often resumed an animal-based diet after starting to graze on seagrasses. As a consequence, seagrass consumption did not increase gradually with turtle size and animal prey largely contributed to the diet of turtles within the range 29–59 cm CCLmin (76–99% of assimilated nutrients). Seagrass consumption by turtles larger than 59 cm CCLmin was higher, but they still relied largely on animal prey (53–76% of assimilated nutrients). Thus, throughout most of their neritic juvenile life, green turtles from NW Africa would be better classified as omnivores rather than herbivores.

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