Ontogenetic niche shifts in the American Alligator establish functional connectivity between aquatic systems
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Individual animals undergoing ontogenetic shifts in habitat use may establish a mobile link between discrete ecosystems via movement of energy, nutrients and matter, as well as through impacts on ecosystem and habitat structure. The American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) is a model species for studying ecological implications of ontogenetic niche shifts, because they grow in size by several orders of magnitude, and they play a critical role as both top predators and ecosystem engineers. We used equal trapping effort, radio telemetry and nest surveys to document ontogenetic habitat shifts of alligators between hydrologically isolated, seasonal wetlands and riverine systems. To estimate the degree of functional connectivity between systems, we quantified alligator biomass and nutrient excretion in both systems. Seasonal wetlands provided nesting and nursery sites for adult females and juveniles, which constituted 0.78 g/m2 biomass and excreted 0.05 g/m2/yr N, P, Ca, Mg, Na and K in that system. In contrast, the riverine system provided non-nesting habitat for adults and sub-adults of both sexes, totaling 0.18 g/m2 biomass and excreting 0.01 g/m2/yr of nutrients. Furthermore, sub-adults and adult females were documented moving across the terrestrial matrix, while adult males spent the duration of the study in the creek. Our results demonstrated that ontogenetic niche shifts in alligators establish connectivity between seasonal wetlands and riverine systems and with the surrounding terrestrial matrix. These findings have implications for the definition of jurisdictional wetlands under the US Supreme Court's 2001 SWANCC decision and highlight the importance of ecological, as well as hydrological, connectivity. 2009 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.