Bonnethead sharks digest seagrass

Published on 5. September 2018

Seagrass digestion by a notorious ‘carnivore’

Samantha C. Leigh, Yannis P. Papastamatiou, Donovan P. German


What an animal consumes and what an animal digests and assimilates for energetic demands are not always synonymous. Sharks, uniformly accepted as carnivores, have guts that are presumed to be well suited for a high-protein diet. However, the bonnethead shark (Sphyrna tiburo), which is abundant in critical seagrass habitats, has been previously shown to consume copious amounts of seagrass (up to 62.1% of gut content mass), although it is unknown if they can digest and assimilate seagrass nutrients. To determine if bonnetheads digest seagrass nutrients, captive sharks were fed a 13C-labelled seagrass diet. Digestibility analyses, digestive enzyme assays and stable isotope analyses were used to determine the bonnethead shark’s capacity for digesting and assimilating seagrass material. Compound-specific stable isotope analysis showed that sharks assimilated seagrass carbon (13.6 ± 6.77‰ δ13C mean ± s.d. for all sharks and all amino acid types analysed) with 50 ± 2% digestibility of seagrass organic matter. Additionally, cellulose-component-degrading enzyme activities were detected in shark hindguts. We show that a coastal shark is digesting seagrass with at least moderate efficiency, which has ecological implications due to the stabilizing role of omnivory and nutrient transport within fragile seagrass ecosystems.

Proc. R. Soc. B 2018 285 20181583; DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2018.1583



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