Large teleost (bony) fish are a dominant group of predators in the oceans and constitute a major source of food and livelihood for humans. These species differ markedly in morphology and feeding habits across oceanic regions; large pelagic species such as tunas and billfish typically occur in the tropics, whereas demersal species of gadoids and flatfish dominate boreal and temperate regions. Despite their importance for fisheries and the structuring of marine ecosystems, the underlying factors determining the global distribution and productivity of these two groups of teleost predators are poorly known. Here, we show how latitudinal differences in predatory fish can essentially be explained by the inflow of energy at the base of the pelagic and benthic food chain. A low productive benthic energy pathway favours large pelagic species, whereas equal productivities support large demersal generalists that outcompete the pelagic specialists. Our findings demonstrate the vulnerability of large teleost predators to ecosystem-wide changes in energy flows and hence provide key insight to predict the responses of these important marine resources under global change.

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We thank N. S. Jacobsen for help with the RAM Legacy Stock Assessment Database, C. A. Stock for advice on the energy fluxes, U. R. Sumaila for making the global fish prices available and H. van Someren Gréve for Fig. 1,3 and 4 fish illustrations. P.D.v.D., M.L. and K.H.A. conducted the work within the Centre for Ocean Life—a Villum Kann Rasmussen Center of Excellence supported by the Villum Foundation. P.D.v.D. received funding from the People Programme (Marie Curie Actions) of the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under Research Executive Agency grant agreement number 609405 (COFUNDPostdocDTU). M.L. is supported by a VILLUM Young Investigator grant (13159). R.A.W. acknowledges support from the Australian Research Council (Discovery Project DP140101377).

Author information


  1. Centre for Ocean Life, National Institute of Aquatic Resources, Technical University of Denmark, Kemitorvet B-202, 2800, Kongens Lyngby, Denmark

    • P. Daniël van Denderen
    • , Martin Lindegren
    • , Brian R. MacKenzie
    •  & Ken H. Andersen
  2. Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, GPO Box 252-49, Hobart, Tasmania, 7001, Australia

    • Reg A. Watson
  3. Centre for Marine Socioecology, University of Tasmania, Hobart, Tasmania, 7004, Australia

    • Reg A. Watson


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P.D.v.D., M.L., B.R.M. and K.H.A. conceived the study. R.A.W. contributed fisheries landings data. P.D.v.D. performed the research with support from M.L. and K.H.A. P.D.v.D., M.L. and K.H.A. wrote the paper. All authors contributed to interpretation of the results and commented on the paper.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to P. Daniël van Denderen.

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    Supplementary Figures 1–7, Supplementary Tables 1–6

  2. Life Sciences Reporting Summary

  3. Supplementary Data

    Information per ecoregion on the fraction pelagic fish in landings, environmental variables and the food-web model outcome

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