The DIET Table

Knowledge of the diet composition of a fish species at a specific locality is useful in assessing its ecological function and impact, for the construction of ecosystem models (see Box 21), and to help define the nutritional requirements of potential aquaculture species. In FishBase, data in the DIET table are also used to estimate the trophic level of species (see Box 23).

Fish have developed specialized morphologies for food gathering

On the other hand, most demersal fish have developed various specialized methods of food gathering. Those ‘browsing on the substrate’, ‘sucking food-containing materials’ or ‘grazing on aquatic plants’ often live near the bottom and have developed specialized morphologies adapted to this (see e.g., de Groot 1984 for flatfishes). More specialized feeding techniques are used by those fish that depend on other organisms to feed, i.e., the parasites, commensals, cleaners and scavengers. Fish with ‘variable’ feeding types also exist (see for example Tiews et al. 1972 on the feeding habits of leiognathids). The choice ‘other’ is provided for fish with specialized food gathering habits not in the choice list; in such cases, the specific feeding type is indicated in the Remarks field.

Frequency of occurrence does not describe the diet

There is a huge number of references in the literature which provide information on the frequency of occurrence of food items in fish stomachs, which some readers may view as providing useful data on diet compositions. However, except perhaps in fish larvae, whose food items are all uniformly small, frequency of occurrence is not a good indicator of how much a food item contributes to the diet of a given population. For example, a small copepod that occurs in 50% of the examined stomachs may contribute much less to the diet than large polychaetes that are found in only 40% of the stomachs. The many indices applied to frequency of occurrence data do not remedy this basic flaw and rather confuse the topic. Editors and referees should reject submitted manuscripts dealing with stomach contents that do not present diet data in terms of weight, volume or energy.


We have limited our entries to those quantitative reports which do not suffer from the flaw described above. Records entered in this table deal only with studies on the stomach content of fish as they occur in the wild, and not under experimental conditions. Thus, most of the information entered in the DIET table was obtained from relatively few (>460) references, notably Stevens (1966), Randall (1967), Hobson (1974), Armstrong (1982), Sano et al. (1984), Randall (1985), Gonzalez and Soto (1988), Laroche (1982), Sierra et al. (1994) and Valtysson (1995).

Diet composition data have been compiled for more than 1,400 species. We would like to have diet data for as many finfish species as possible, and would appreciate reprints for species that we have missed so far.


The taxonomic classifications of the food items of the more than 3,000 records for over 1,400 species with diet compositions were checked against the Taxonomic Code of Hardy (1993), the Taxonomic Authority List of the Aquatic Sciences and Fisheries Information System (de Luca 1988) and Barnes (1980). Inconsistencies may arise in the functional classification of some animal food items. We have tried to reduce as much as possible the inconsistencies resulting from this by inferring the functional group of a food item from the habitat and behavior of the species that consumed it, but have probably failed to resolve all of them.


The DIET table consists of the following fields:

The Stage of fish sampled (choice) field has 4 options, i.e., larvae; recruits or juveniles (recruits/juv.); juveniles and adults (juv./adults) which is the default option for cases where the life stage is not specified); adults.

The Mean length field refers to the average length of fish in the sample in centimeters and is coupled with a length type field. The Number of fish sampled refers to the individual fish specimens; the percentage with empty stomachs is stated whenever available.

The Locality field refers to the specific site where the study was undertaken, further identified by the Country field before it.

The Months covered by the study, which appear as highlighted fields define the period of the year when the samples were obtained. Such information can help interpret the presence or abundance of specific food items in the habitat.

The Remarks field is used for ancillary information required if the option ‘other’ in choice fields within the table has been clicked or, for information which may further explain and/or describe particular food items.

Fig. 37. Diet composition, in % volume or weight of Oreochromis niloticus niloticus in Lake Awasa, Ethiopia. Further breakdown of the given categories is available in FishBase.

Food items are classified at three levels, from broad groups to species

To accommodate the range of information found in the literature, food items are classified in three categories, from very general groupings in Food I to taxonomic groups in Food III (see FOOD ITEMS table and Box 24 for details on the hierarchy). Finally, the species name of the food item and/or other information can be seen in a text field by clicking on More button (if highlighted). For recomputed volumes, the More button also shows the original % in which a food item appears in the diet.

The Prey stage field refers to the life stage of a prey, i.e., eggs; larvae or pupae; recruits/juv.; juv./adults; adults; or to a specific part of a plant food, i.e., roots; stem; leaves/blades; fruits/seeds. The ‘n.a./others’ option is provided for cases in which the life stage is not stated by the source (and cannot be deduced), or when several stages are consumed.

The % diet (numeric) field refers to the percent weight or volume contributed by a food item to the stomach content of a fish; the percentages of the various items must add up to 100%, which is ascertained by a calculated field. Unidentified items in the diet are excluded (see Other items in Ref. field) and the contributions to the diet of all identified items are readjusted to bring the total back to 100%. The percentages can also be viewed in form of a pie chart (see Fig. 37).

The troph estimated from a diet composition (and from the trophs of the food items; see the FOOD ITEMS table) is displayed in a computed field, along with its standard error.

Box 27. Another approach to estimate diet composition.

We used the over 3,000 records in the DIET table to estimate the typical contribution of various food items to the diet of fish, if they were the main food, i.e., had rank 1 in a diet study based on percent contribution to total stomach content in weight or volume. The results are shown in Table 2 and Fig. 38. As can be seen from the pie chart the most common main foods of fish are animals, mainly other fish, and benthic and pelagic crustaceans. Table 2 shows the typical (here: median) contribution of functional food groups I and II to the diet when they are the main food. We plan to turn this into a software that will add percentages to food items if the ranking of their contribution (but not the actual percentage) is indicated in the literature, as is often the case. That software will also consider the typical contributions of food items if they occupy, e.g., rank 2 or 3 of a certain number of reported food items. At the beginning of the DIET chapter, we explained why diet studies expressed in frequency of occurrence are rather useless. However, if we can show that the ranking of the frequency of food items in stomachs is the same as the ranking of their contribution in percent volume or weight, then this software can make the huge ‘frequency of occurrence’ literature useful for food web studies. See also Box 24 which explains how we use a Monte Carlo routine to estimate trophic level from food items for which no ranking is known.

Maria Lourdes D. Palomares and Rainer Froese


Table 2. Median contribution to stomach contents (% volume or % weight), if the respective item was the dominant food, i.e., first item in the diet composition record; 2,420 records were obtained from the DIETS table and only functional groups with more than 10 records as dominant food were used in this analysis.

Functional group (I)

Median (%)

Functional group (II)

Median (%)

Min. (%)

Max. (%)

















Other plants







Fish (early stages)






Planktonic crustaceans






Other planktonic invertebrates







Benthic crustaceans






























Sponges and tunicates












Other benthic invertebrates



















Fig. 38. Contribution of main food items to fish stomach contents (in % weight or % volume) obtained from records in the DIET table. Note that this includes only dominant food items.

How to get there

You get to the DIET table by clicking on the Biology button in the SPECIES window, the Trophic ecology button in the BIOLOGY window and the Diet button in the TROPHIC ECOLOGY window.

You get to the pie chart of diet compositions by locality by double-clicking on the study of interest in the DIET COMPOSITION window, then clicking on the Graph button in the upper right corner of the DIET window.

You get to the troph level vs. maximum length graph by clicking on the left Graph button in the upper right corner of the DIET COMPOSITION window.

You get to the Troph Changes by Length graph by clicking on the right button in the upper right corner of the DIET COMPOSITION window. You are given the option to include results of a regression analysis (line and equation) on this graph.


On the Internet, you get to the DIET table by clicking on the Diet Composition link in the ‘More information’ section of the ‘Species Summary’ page. You can create a list of all species for which diet data are available by selecting the Diet radio button in the ‘Information by Topic’ section of the ‘Search FishBase’ page.


Armstrong, M.J. 1982. The predator-prey relationships of Irish Sea poor-cod (Trisopterus minutus L.), pouting (Trisopterus luscus L.), and cod (Gadus morhua L.). J. Cons. CIEM 40:135-152.

Barnes, R.D. 1980. Invertebrate zoology. 4th ed. JMC Press, Inc., Quezon City, Philippines. 1089 p.

de Groot, S.J. 1984. Dutch observations on rare fish and Crustacea in 1981. Annales Biologiques (Copenhagen) 38:206.

de Luca, F. 1988. Taxonomic authority list. Aquatic Sciences and Fisheries Information System Ref. Ser. No. 8, 465 p.

Gonzalez, G.D. and L.A. Soto. 1988. Hábitos alimentícios de peces de depredadores del sistema lagunar Huizache-Caimanero, Sinaloa, México. Inst. Cienc. Del Mar y Limnol. Univ. Nal. Autón. México 15(1):97-124.

Hardy, J.D. 1993. NODC taxonomic code links biology and computerized data processing. Earth System Monitor 4(2):1-2.

Hobson, E.S. 1974. Feeding relationships of teleostean fishes on coral reefs in Kona, Hawaii. Fish. Bull. 72(4):915-1031.

Laroche, J.L. 1982. Trophic patterns among larvae of five species of sculpins (Family: Cottidae) in a Maine estuary. Fish. Bull. 80(4):827-840.

Randall, J.E. 1967. Food habits of reef fishes of the West Indies. Stud. Trop. Oceanogr. Miami 5:665-847.

Randall, J.E. 1985. Guide to Hawaiian reef fishes. Harrowood Books, Newton Square, Pensylvania.

Sano, M., M. Shimizu and Y. Nose. 1984. Food habits of teleostean reef fishes in Okinawa Island, southern Japan. University of Tokyo Press, Tokyo, Japan. 128 p.

Sierra, L.M., R. Claro and O.A. Popova. 1994. Alimentacion y relaciones tróficas, p. 263-284. In R. Claro (ed.) Ecología de los Peces Marinos de Cuba. Instituto de Oceanología Academia de Ciencias de Cuba / Centro de Investigaciones de Quintana Roo, México.

Stevens, D.E. 1966. Food habits of striped bass, Roccus saxatilis in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, p. 68-96. In J.L. Turner and D.W. Kelly (comps.) Ecological studies of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Part II. Fishes of the Delta. Fish. Bull. 136.

Tiews, K., S.A. Bravo, I.A. Ronquillo and J. Marques. 1972. On the food and feeding habits of eight species of Leiognathus found in Manila Bay and San Miguel Bay. Indo-Pac. Fish. Counc. 13(3):93-99.

Valtysson, H.T. 1995. Feeding habits and distribution of eelpout species Lycodes spp. (Reinhardt) (Pisces: Zoarcidae) in Icelandic waters. Department of Biology, University of Iceland, Reykjavik. Postgraduate thesis.

Maria Lourdes D. Palomares and Pascualita Sa-a