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Molecular scatology as a tool to study diet: analysis of prey DNA in scats from captive Steller sea lions

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The DNA of prey present in animal scats may provide a valuable source of information for dietary studies. We conducted a captive feeding trial to test whether prey DNA could be reliably detected in scat samples from Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus). Two sea lions were fed a diet of fish (five species) and squid (one species), and DNA was extracted from the soft component of collected scats. Most of the DNA obtained came from the predator, but prey DNA could be amplified using prey-specific primers. The four prey species fed in consistent daily proportions throughout the trial were detected in more than 90% of the scat DNA extractions. Squid and sockeye salmon, which were fed as a relatively small percentage of the daily diet, were detected as reliably as the more abundant diet items. Prey detection was erratic in scats collected when the daily diet was fed in two meals that differed in prey composition, suggesting that prey DNA is passed in meal specific pulses. Prey items that were removed from the diet following one day of feeding were only detected in scats collected within 48 h of ingestion. Proportions of fish DNA present in eight scat samples (evaluated through the screening of clone libraries) were roughly proportional to the mass of prey items consumed, raising the possibility that DNA quantification methods could provide semi-quantitative diet composition data. This study should be of broad interest to researchers studying diet since it highlights an approach that can accurately identify prey species and is not dependent on prey hard parts surviving digestion.
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Keywords: Eumetopias jubatus; denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis; faeces; hard parts; noninvasive; species identification

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Marine Mammal Research Unit, Fisheries Centre, University of British Columbia, 6248 Biological Sciences Road, Vancouver V6T 1Z4, Canada 2: Australian Antarctic Division, Channel Highway, Kingston, Tasmania 7050, Australia, 3: Zoology Department, University of Tasmania, Box 252–05, Hobart, Tasmania 7000, Australia,

Publication date: 01 May 2005

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