Fitness consequences for copepods feeding on a red tide dinoflagellate: Deciphering the effects of nutritional value, toxicity, and feeding behavior

Emily K. Prince, Liliana Lettieri, Katherine J. McCurdy, Julia Kubanek

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

57 Scopus citations


Phytoplankton exhibit a diversity of morphologies, nutritional values, and potential chemical defenses that could affect the feeding and fitness of zooplankton consumers. However, how phytoplankton traits shape plant-herbivore interactions in the marine plankton is not as well understood as for terrestrial or marine macrophytes and their grazers. The occurrence of blooms of marine dinoflagellates such as Karenia brevis suggests that, for uncertain reasons, grazers are unable to capitalize on, or control, this phytoplankton growth - making these systems appealing for testing mechanisms of grazing deterrence. Using the sympatric copepod Acartia tonsa, we conducted a mixed diet feeding experiment to test whether K. brevis is beneficial, toxic, nutritionally inadequate, or behaviorally rejected as food relative to the palatable and nutritionally adequate phytoplankter Rhodomonas lens. On diets rich in K. brevis, copepods experienced decreased survivorship and decreased egg production per female, but the percentage of eggs that hatched was unaffected. Although copepods showed a 6-17% preference for R. lens over K. brevis on some mixed diets, overall high ingestion rates eliminated the possibility that reduced copepod fitness was caused by copepods avoiding K. brevis, leaving nutritional inadequacy and toxicity as remaining hypotheses. Because egg production was dependent on the amount of R. lens consumed regardless of the amount of K. brevis eaten, there was no evidence that fitness costs were caused by K. brevis toxicity. Copepods limited to K. brevis ate 480% as much as those fed only R. lens, suggesting that copepods attempted to compensate for low food quality with increased quantity ingested. Our results indicate that K. brevis is a poor food for A. tonsa, probably due to nutritional inadequacy rather than toxicity, which could affect bloom dynamics in the Gulf of Mexico where these species co-occur.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)479-488
Number of pages10
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2006
Externally publishedYes


  • Acartia tonsa
  • Compensatory feeding
  • Copepod
  • Karenia brevis
  • Toxin

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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