The Peruvian coast is one the best examples of cross-ecosystem food web exchanges, in which resources from one of the richest marine ecosystems subsidize consumers in one of the driest deserts on Earth. Marine subsidies are resources that originate in the marine ecosystem, and that contribute to increase the density of consumers in the recipient ecosystem. I examined the effects of marine subsidies on animal populations in the Peruvian coastal desert.
I combined several approaches to study the linkages between marine resources and terrestrial consumers, such as surveying the spatial distribution and estimating the relative abundance of terrestrial consumers, studying the diet of geckos and lizards through stomach content analyses, and examining the desert food web with carbon and nitrogen stable isotope analyses.
I found that the distribution and diet of desert consumers were tightly coupled to the availability of marine subsidies. I revealed linkages along two pathways of nutrient fluxes: tidal action that washes ashore macroalgae and cadavers of marine organisms, and animal transport in places where pinnipeds and seabirds congregate for reproduction. In the first pathway, intertidal algivivores made marine resources available to terrestrial consumers by moving between the intertidal and supratidal zone. The relative contribution of terrestrial and algal carbon sources varied among terrestrial consumers, because scorpions assimilated a lower proportion of energy from macroalgae than did geckos and solifuges. In the second pathway, I found that pinniped colonies influenced the diet of desert consumers, and contributed to support large populations of lizards and geckos. By combining field observations, and stomach and stable isotope analyses, I constructed a simplified food web for a large sea lion colony, showing the number of trophic levels that originate from pinniped-derived nutrients.
My study demonstrates the enormous importance of marine resources for the diet of desert consumers. The near absence of rainfall along the Peruvian coast promotes an extreme dependence of terrestrial consumers on marine resources, and causes permanent food web effects that are affected by temporal variability in marine productivity, rather then temporal patterns of desert plant growth.