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Resource partitioning among five sympatric species of freshwater turtles from the wet-dry tropics of northern Australia

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J. Sean Doody

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Context Resource partitioning of diet and microhabitat was examined for five sympatric species of freshwater turtles in the Daly River in the northern end of Northern Territory (Top End) in Australia. The Daly River supports a high diversity of freshwater turtles, making it the ideal place to study a freshwater turtle community. Aims To determine the dry-season diet and microhabitat use of Carettochelys insculpta, Elseya dentata, Chelodina oblonga, Emydura victoriae and Emydura subglobosa worrelli and examine intraspecific and interspecific niche overlap and ontogenetic dietary shift. Methods Gut contents were collected by stomach flushing, and microhabitat use was determined by recording where each turtle was first seen before capture. Diet and microhabitat use were compared using an index of relative importance. Niche overlap was measured with Horn's overlap index. Key resultsCarettochelys insculpta is an opportunistic omnivore that feeds mostly on ribbonweed (Vallisneria spiralis) and aquatic snails. Elseya dentata is herbivorous, feeding primarily on aquatic algae. The diets of C. insculpta and E. dentata overlapped moderately, but the overall niche overlap was low because they occupied different microhabitats within the river. Chelodina oblonga fed very little, and may use the Daly River as a dry-season refuge. Emydura victoriae is molluscivorous, consuming more molluscs as it grows. This ontogenetic dietary shift was associated with megacephaly (extreme broadly expanded head that is too large to fit into the carapace) and expanded triturating surfaces. This specialisation allows adult E. victoriae to feed exclusively on molluscs and so their diet overlapped little with other species. Emydura subglobosa worrelli was omnivorous, consuming mostly freshwater sponge and apparently preferring more lentic water. Conclusions The freshwater turtles of the wet-dry tropics are usually reported as being heavily reliant on the seeds, fruits and leaves of riparian vegetation; however, the present study showed that the dry-season diet in perennial rivers is primarily of aquatic origin. Implications The study suggested that populations of C. insculpta, E. dentata and E. victoriae could be threatened by broad-scale development in northern Australia if there were substantive impacts on aquatic macrophytes and molluscs in the Daly River system.


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