What eel larvae feed on in the surface layer of the ocean has remained mysterious. Gut contents and bulk nitrogen stable isotope studies suggested that these unusual larvae, called leptocephali, feed at a low level in the oceanic food web, whereas other types of evidence have suggested that small zooplankton are eaten. In this study, we determined the nitrogen isotopic composition of amino acids of both natural larvae and laboratory-reared larvae of the Japanese eel to estimate the trophic position (TP) of leptocephali. We observed a mean TP of 2.4 for natural leptocephali, which is consistent with feeding on particulate organic matter (POM) such as marine snow and discarded appendicularian houses containing bacteria, protozoans and other biological materials. The nitrogen isotope enrichment values of the reared larvae confirm that the primary food source of natural larvae is consistent only with POM. This shows that leptocephali feed on readily available particulate material originating from various sources closely linked to ocean primary production and that leptocephali are a previously unrecognized part of oceanic POM cycling.
- Received August 31, 2012.
- Accepted October 12, 2012.
- © 2012 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.