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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Diet, Prey Selection, and Body Condition of Age-0 Delta Smelt, Hypomesus transpacificus, in the Upper San Francisco Estuary


The Delta Smelt, an endangered fish, has suffered a long-term decline in abundance, believed to result from, in part, to changes in the pelagic food web of the upper San Francisco Estuary. To investigate the current role of food as a factor in Delta Smelt well-being, we developed reference criteria for gut fullness and body condition based on allometric growth. We then examined monthly diet, prey selectivity, and gut fullness of larvae and juvenile Delta Smelt collected April through September in 2005 and 2006 for evidence of feeding difficulties leading to reduced body condition. Calanoid copepods Eurytemora affinis and Pseudodiaptomus forbesi remained major food items during spring and from early summer through fall, respectively. Other much larger copepods and macroinvertebrates contributed in lesser numbers to the diet of older juvenile fish from mid-summer through fall. In fall, juvenile Delta Smelt periodically relied heavily on very small prey and prey potentially associated with demersal habitat, suggesting typical pelagic food items were in short supply. We found a strong positive selection for E. affinis and P. forbesi, neutral to negative selection for evasive calanoid Sinocalanus doerrii, and neutral to negative selection for the small cyclopoid copepod Limnoithona tetraspina and copepod nauplii, which were consumed only when extremely numerous in the environment. Feeding incidence was significantly higher in 2006, but among successfully feeding fish we found no between year difference in gut fullness. However, we did detect differences in fullness across months in both years. We found no difference in body condition of Delta Smelt between years yet our sample sizes were low in September when Delta Smelt reverted to feeding on very small organisms and fullness declined, so the longer-term effect remains unknown. Our findings suggest that: Delta Smelt had difficulty obtaining prey in spring 2005 or obtaining proper-sized prey in fall of both years. We detected these difficulties in some regional feeding incidence and fullness indices, but not in body condition indices.

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