Most people are inundated with nutritional information -- from food pyramid lessons in grade school and fat content on food labels, to health reports on the nightly news. Although we may not follow all the advice, we realize that our health, such as our resistance to disease and optimal athletic performance, is often related not only to the total number of calories that we eat, but also to how well-balanced our diet is, and whether we are getting enough vitamins and nutrients. The food supplement industry capitalizes on the idea that trace sources of specific biochemicals may promote good health.
Animal nutrition research has been done in aquaculture and agriculture, mostly so we can grow our own food animals efficiently, or so that these animals will produce meat that is optimal for human nutrition. Ecologists often focus on how much animals eat, or the species animals prefer to eat. The nutritional composition of their foods is less well-integrated into ecological understanding.
The reliance in ecology on "bulk energy" or "carbon flow" may be misleading and have consequences beyond the purely theoretical. For example, a conservation biologist interested in endangered species protection might consider a minor diet source (in terms of % of diet) relatively unimportant and assign it a low conservation priority level. However, if this food pathway is a major source of essential compounds, its absence from a conservation plan could have dire consequences on the animals that rely on it for good nutrition.
My research will examine the nutrition of some common aquatic animals, their abundance and distribution, to evaluate how important nutritional constraints are in nature. The goal of this research is to gain a better understanding of the role of nutritional composition, and incorporate this knowledge into food web studies for both theoretical and practical purposes.