Consumption and digestion of animal food by rocky intertidal herbivores: an evaluation of digestive flexibility and omnivory in three grazing species
The ingestion of invertebrates by herbivores on rocky intertidal shores is traditionally considered a casual phenomenon. However, a recent study of 29 species in northern Chile shows that animal consumption is widespread, consistent, and important, suggesting that some of these herbivores may actually be omnivores. Therefore, we examined the capability of three common Chilean herbivores (the key-hole limpets Fissurella limbata and Fissurella pida and the polyplacophoran Chiton granosus) to digest animal food. For each species, we conducted no-choice feeding experiments using artificial foods based on either algal or animal tissue from one of their frequent prey (Ulva rigida, Perumytilus purpuratus). After the feeding trials, we evaluated the total proteolytic activity (availability of free amino acids) in the digestive contents of the species studied and, as a reference, we evaluated this activity in animals obtained directly from the field. We found that all three species were able to eat animal food, and this consumption was not significantly different from that of algal food, suggesting that both foods were not only edible but at least similarly palatable. In addition, we detected comparable levels of proteolytic activity under the three feeding conditions for the three species. No statistical differences were found for C. granosus, but activity was significantly higher with animal food in F. limbata and with algal food in F. pida. Our data show the high digestive flexibility of these species, suggesting their ability for adaptive modulation and the possibility that they are true omnivorous consumers. We discuss the implications of these results for our current view of the structure of rocky intertidal food webs.