Evidence for trophic niche partitioning among three temperate gorgonian octocorals

Inga E. CONTI-JERPE*, Joseph R. PAWLIK, Christopher M. FINELLI

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)peer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Trophic niche theory predicts that species in competition for a limiting resource will evolve adaptations allowing them to consume alternative resources and occupy new niche space. Trophic niche partitioning is often identified by differences in the morphology of feeding structures across species; however, these differences may not always be readily observable. Due to their constrained polyp morphology, octocorals are often viewed a single functional group that contributes to benthic-pelagic coupling by feeding opportunistically on available particles. To test the hypothesis that sympatric gorgonians share the same trophic niche, feeding selectivity of three gorgonian species (Leptogorgia virgulata, Muricea pendula, and Thesea nivea) was compared using a combination of flume experiments and stable isotope analysis. The tentacle length and polyp surface area of L. virgulata and T. nivea were also measured and compared. In flume experiments, clearance of rotifers (“typical” zooplankton) and a mixture of cultured phytoplankton indicated that L. virgulata and T. nivea fed on zooplankton and not phytoplankton. Stable isotope values for all three species are consistent with distinct trophic niches, with M. pendula occupying a lower trophic level. Thesea nivea was found to have significantly larger polyp surface area and tentacle length; however, this did not appear to explain observed trophic differences. The results of this study provide evidence for niche partitioning, but future work is required to better understand the mechanism behind this divergence.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)907-920
Number of pages14
JournalCoral Reefs
Issue number4
Early online date20 Jun 2022
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2022
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors gratefully acknowledge D.W. Freshwater, S. Hall, and C. LaClair for research vessel and diving support, and D. Hines for assistance with figures. Technical support for isotope work was provided by K. Duernberger and the Stable Isotope Geochemistry Laboratory at the UNCW Center for Marine Science. The manuscript benefitted greatly from comments provided by three anonymous reviewers.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022, The Author(s).


  • Clearance rate
  • Gorgonians
  • Octocorals
  • SIBER analysis
  • South Atlantic Bight
  • Stable isotope analysis


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