Patterns of feeding in a population of Heliaster helianthus (Lamarck), a common and dominant species of starfish indigenous to the Pacific South American coast, were investigated in an intertidal habitat in central Peru from October 1986 to April 1987. The H. helianthus population comprised individuals of 3.5 to 30.2 cm body size (diameter) with two modal size classes. The number of rays ranged between 18 and 40, and individuals with 31 to 33 rays accounted for ca. 42% of the total population. There was a higher rate of increase in ray number with body size amongst small individuals(<13.0 cm diam). H. helianthus is capable of feeding on more than one prey item at a time (average of 5.6 to 13.2 prey items handled, with several predators observed to hold >100), and both the number of prey individuals captured and the total prey biomass were significantly correlated with predator size. Amongst a total of 1132 feeding observations, the largest number of predators (an average of 85.4% of those feeding) were preying on the mussel Semimytilus algosus whilst another mussel, Perumytilus purpuratus, ranked second with 21,9% of predators feeding. The proportion of S. algosus in the diet increased from 65.4% in the smallest predator size-group (≤10.9 cm diam) to 91.2% in the largest (≥19.0 cm). In contrast, P. purpuratus and barnacles were more highly represented in the diet of small H. helianthus. The smallest size-group (≤10.9 cm) had low dietary overlap with larger sizes and less specialized prey utilization. Two geographically separated populations of H. helianthus in Peru and Chile showed contrasting patterns of prey utilization. S. algosus and P. purpuratus comprised 85.5 and 6.5% by number in the diet of the Peruvian population, respectively, whilst corresponding figures for the Chilean population were 8.3 and 60.5%, with barnacles attaining a higher share (22.6%). However, the total number of prey individuals per feeding predator was almost the same in Peru and Chile, with 10.0 and 10.7 individuals, respectively. H. helianthus individuals of different sizes occupy slightly different microhabitats within the intertidal area, which, coupled with differential spatial distribution of prey species, results in the predator population being able to utilize a wide range of resources.
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