Food Web Structure Informs Potential Causes of Bimodal Size Structure in a Top Predator


stable isotope analysis, lake trout, Salvelinus namaycush, pelagic forage fish, splake, pelagic energy pathway, food web, isotopic niche space



Assemblages of fishes in lakes and reservoirs in the western USA are dominated by non-native, large-bodied, piscivorous fishes that lack a shared evolutionary history. Top predators in these crowded systems are often characterized by unstable population dynamics and poor somatic growth rates. One such assemblage is in Fish Lake, located in southern Utah, USA, in which introduced lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush, Walbaum) exhibit a bimodal growth pattern. A few lake trout in Fish Lake grow rapidly to large size typical of the species; whereas, most never grow beyond 600 mm total length.


To inform competitive interactions in this evolutionarily novel fish assemblage that might cause the low recruitment to large body size in lake trout, we characterized trophic niche (from stable isotope analysis of C and N) of all fishes in the lake.


We used a Bayesian mixing model to describe the trophic niche and infer diet of lake trout and their potential prey, and we used Bayesian ellipse analysis to identify potential areas of high competition within the food web. Large lake trout feed mostly on small lake trout and splake (Salvelinus namaycush, Walbaum x Salvelinus fontinalis, Mitchill) despite availability of abundant yellow perch. (Perca flavescens, Mitchill). Small lake trout and splake feed mostly on zooplankton and exhibit substantial overlap of their trophic niche implying competition for food. Yellow perch and Utah chub (Gila atraria, Girard; formerly an important food item for lake trout in Fish Lake) exhibit extreme overlap of their trophic niche implying strong competitive interactions.


Our data suggest that lack of recruitment to large body size in lake trout may result from a reduction in availability of Utah chub resulting from competitive interactions with yellow perch, and increased competition from introduced splake for available prey.


Management actions that may help ameliorate the poor somatic growth rates of most lake trout include efforts to reduce perch populations or increase vulnerability of perch to predation by lake trout, and removal of splake as a competitor of small lake trout.

Original Publication Citation

Searle PC, JA Verde, MC Belk. 2018. Food Web Structure Informs Potential Causes of Bimodal Size Structure in a Top Predator. The Open Fish Science Journal 11:36-45.

Document Type

Peer-Reviewed Article

Publication Date


Permanent URL


The Open Fish Science Journal




Life Sciences



University Standing at Time of Publication

Full Professor