i Canadian Manuscript Report of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences No. 2656

i Canadian Manuscript Report of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences No. 2656
Canadian Manuscript Report of
Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences No. 2656
T.D. Jardine1, S.A. McGeachy, C.M. Paton, M. Savoie, and R.A. Cunjak
Stable Isotopes in Nature Laboratory
Canadian Rivers Institute
University of New Brunswick
Fredericton, NB
E3B 5A3, Canada
Correspondence: tim.jardine@unb.ca
© Minister of Supply and Services Canada 2003
Cat. No. Fs 97-4/2656E
ISSN 0706-6473
Printed on recycled paper
Correct citation for this publication:
Jardine, T.D., S.A. McGeachy, C.M. Paton, M. Savoie, and R.A. Cunjak. 2003.
Stable isotopes in aquatic systems: Sample preparation, analysis, and interpretation. Can.
Manuscr. Rep. Fish. Aquat. Sci. No. 2656: 39 p.
Stable isotope chemistry.............................................................................................1
International isotopic standards..................................................................................1
Sample calculation......................................................................................................2
Isotope literature.........................................................................................................2
SAMPLE PRESERVATION AND PREPARATION........................................................3
Preservation methods..................................................................................................3
Submitting samples for analysis.................................................................................3
Additional techniques.................................................................................................4
INTERPRETATION OF STABLE ISOTOPE DATA........................................................5
Animal SI ratios relative to diet...............................................................................5
Mechanisms responsible for fractionation...............................................................6
Equilibration with a diet in lab and field: Growth vs. turnover...............................6
FOOD WEBS......................................................................................................................7
Primary productivity................................................................................................8
Migratory patterns...................................................................................................9
Mixing models.......................................................................................................10
Nutrient input.........................................................................................................12
Diet shifts...............................................................................................................12
Large-bodied species.............................................................................................13
FURTHER CONFOUNDING FACTORS........................................................................13
Tissue differences..................................................................................................13
Nutritional status....................................................................................................14
APPENDIX 1 – Stable Isotope Laboratories in Canada....................................................37
This report was written to provide background information for aquatic ecologists
interested in using stable isotope analysis (SIA). Ratios of stable isotopes of carbon
(13C/12C), nitrogen (15N/14N), and sulphur (34S/32S) differ among various substances, and
allow for dietary inferences to be made due to the predictability of isotopic relationships
between consumers and their food. SIA has been used to construct food webs in streams,
lakes, estuaries, and oceans. SIA also has been employed to examine contaminant
bioaccumulation in top predators, to identify migrant individuals, and to quantify nutrient
sources and their uptake. Potential problems exist, however, that require a researcher’s
awareness, to avoid potentially erroneous and misleading interpretation of data. SIA is
becoming a powerful tool in ecology due to its integrative nature and its potential for
non-destructive sampling.
Ce rapport fut écrit afin de fournir des connaissances de base aux écologistes aquatiques
intéressés d’effectuer l’analyse des isotopes stables (AIS). Les rapports des isotopes
stables du carbone (13C/12C), azote (15N/14N), et soufre (34S/32S) diffèrent parmi plusieurs
substances et permettent de déduire l’alimentation par la prédictibilité des relations
isotopiques entre les consommateurs et leur nourriture. AIS a été employée afin d’établir
la chaîne alimentaire dans les ruisseaux, lacs, estuaires et océans. AIS a également été
utilisée pour examiner la bioaccumulation des contaminants chez les prédateurs
supérieurs, identifier les individus migrateurs, et quantifier les sources et la
consommation des nutriments. Néanmoins, les chercheurs doivent être informés de
l’existence de problèmes potentiels afin d’éviter l’interprétation erronée ou trompeuse des
données. AIS devient un outil puissant en écologie par sa nature intégrée et son potentiel
pour l’échantillonnage non-destructif.
Stable isotope chemistry
Certain elements in nature exhibit variations in atomic weight based on
differences in the number of neutrons in the nucleus. This does not affect their general
physical or chemical properties, but does allow for their identification by isotope ratio
mass spectrometry (IRMS), as all substances carry a unique signature (proportion) of
given variable forms. These mass unit variations of elements are known as isotopes, and
those that do not decay over time (non-radioactive) are termed stable (Schimel 1993).
Stable isotope science, traditionally used as a tool in geo-chemical studies, has become an
increasingly useful method for quantifying energy flow in ecosystems. The utility of
stable isotopes is in their ability to record both source (equilibration) and process
(fractionation) information (Peterson and Fry 1987).
The three main elements used in stable isotope analysis (SIA) for ecological
research are carbon, nitrogen, and sulphur. Carbon exists primarily as the carbon-12
isotope (98.89%), but a small fraction (1.11%) is present as carbon-13, while nitrogen’s
most abundant form is the nitrogen-14 isotope (99.64%), with nitrogen-15 making up the
remainder (0.36%). Sulphur exists in four stable forms. Sulfur-32 is the most common
(95.02%), but contributions to total sulphur are also made from sulfur-34 (4.21%),
sulphur-33 (0.75%), and a small fraction from sulfur-36 (0.02%). Many other elements,
including hydrogen and oxygen, also have multiple stable forms that lend themselves to
analysis, but are not considered here.
The different isotopes, while possessing the same fundamental chemical
properties, differ in characteristics that are a direct consequence of their atomic mass,
such as gas density, condensed phase density, and rates of diffusion and evaporation.
Another major difference between isotopic forms is their thermodynamic characteristics,
properties that cause reactions in biochemical processes to occur at slightly different rates
(Urey 1947). These differences in rate will favour either the lighter or heavier isotope,
leading to depletion or enrichment, respectively, of the product relative to the substrate
(or the consumer relative to its energy source).
International isotopic standards
In order to accurately compare isotopic values across experimental studies,
various standards were developed for individual isotopes. These standards were
originally chosen because they demonstrated consistent values (in isotope %) after
multiple measurements. Craig (1957) used carbon dioxide from calcium carbonate
produced by a cretaceous belemnite, Belemnitella americana, from the Peedee formation
of South Carolina (PDB) as a standard for δ13C, and this has since been upgraded to a
Vienna PDB (VPDB) scale by assigning a fixed value of 1.95‰ to National Bureau of
Standards (NBS)-19 calcite (Coplen 1996). Standards originally used for nitrogen and
sulphur were atmospheric nitrogen (AIR) (Mariotti 1983) and Canyon Diablo troilite (of
meteoric origin) (CDT, Thode et al. 1961), respectively. While AIR is still accepted as a
reliable standard for nitrogen measurements, the development of a Vienna CDT (VCDT)
scale using a value of -0.3‰ for silver sulphide reference material IAEA-S-1
(International Atomic Energy Agency) has supplanted the use of CDT in sulphur
measurements due to CDT’s high variability (± 0.4‰, Coplen and Krouse 1998).
Sample calculation
IRMS data are reported as δX values (where X represents the heavier isotope 13C,
N, or S), or differences from the given standards, expressed in parts per thousand or
permil (‰), and are calculated according to the formula:
δX = [(Rsample/Rstandard) – 1] * 1000
where (using carbon as an example) Rsample = 13C/12C of the sample, and Rstandard = 13C/12C
of PDB. R represents the ratio of the abundance of the ions of mass 45 (13C16O16O +
12 16 17
C O O) to mass 44 (12C16O16O); thus a correction factor for 17O is required (Craig
1953). Similar calculations can be performed comparing samples and standards for
nitrogen [R = 15N/14N, as measured by the ratio of the abundance of ions of mass 29
(14N15N+) to mass 28 (14N14N+) (Mariotti 1984)], and sulphur [(R = 34S/32S, as measured
by the ratio of the abundance of ions of mass 66 (34S16O16O + 32S18O16O) to mass 64
(32S16O16O). Therefore, correction must be made for 18O (as opposed to 17O) in sulphur
analysis (Holt and Engelkemeir 1970, Fry et al. 2002)].
The use of ratios allows for large discrepancies (in ‰) to be observed between
samples that differ only slightly in the percentage composition of given isotopes
(Peterson and Fry 1987). This largely increases resolving power and permits
comparisons across analytical laboratories and studies.
Isotope literature
Many excellent textbooks and review papers dealing with stable isotope science
have been written (e.g. Peterson and Fry 1987, Rundel et al. 1989, Lathja and Michener
1994, Clark and Fritz 1997, and Kendall and McDonnell 1998), and go into greater detail
on specific topics that are only briefly mentioned here.
Carbon flow in a variety of aquatic ecosystem scales is discussed in
comprehensive review papers by Fry and Sherr (1984), Rounick and Winterbourne
(1986), and Finlay (2001). Other reviews dealing with stable isotopes include: patterns
of nitrogen in the marine environment (Owens 1987), nitrogen pollution in air and water
(Heaton 1986), food webs in rivers (Woodward and Hildrew 2002), avian and
mammalian trophic ecology (Kelly 2000), identification of migrant individuals (Hobson
1999), and applications of stable isotopes in understanding physiological processes
(Griffiths 1991).
Due to the small amounts of sample material used in SIA there is high risk of
sample contamination. Precautions should be taken while handling specimens to be
submitted for analysis (i.e. clean containers, aseptic techniques). Scintillation vials,
Eppendorf tubes, vacutainers and whirl pack bags are some examples of containers used
for sample collection.
Preservation methods
Freezing specimens and/or tissues collected in the field is the ideal method for
sample preservation. No differences were measured between frozen and freeze-dried
samples (Bosley and Wainright 1999), so either method is acceptable. For plankton
samples, water collected in the field can later be filtered on pre-combusted glass-fibre (or
other inorganic) filter papers that have no effect on SI ratios (Hobson et al. 1997).
Other preservation techniques have some major or minor problems. Deleterious
effects of formalin on isotope ratios (Hobson et al. 1997, Bosley and Wainright 1999)
may be negligible (Junger and Planas 1994) or predictable (Sarakinos et al. 2002). Nondietary carbonates, such as found in many shellfish species, may affect δ13C, but can be
removed by acidification (DeNiro and Epstein 1978). Treatment with hydrochloric acid,
however, adversely affects δ15N (Bunn et al. 1995, Pinnegar and Polunin 1999), so
researchers may choose to split tissues into acid-treated and intact sub-samples for
separate analyses of δ13C and δ15N (Pinnegar et al. 2001). Lysis buffer solutions and
dimethyl sulphoxide (solutions typically used to preserve samples for genetic analyses)
impact carbon and nitrogen SI ratios (Hobson et al. 1997, Bosley and Wainright 1999),
and are therefore not recommended. Instead, ethanol is a preservative that does not
appear to affect SI ratios (Hobson et al. 1997).
Submitting samples for analysis
Samples must be sufficiently dried until the tissue can be ground into a fine
powder (e.g. 60˚C for 48 hours or freeze-drying). A mortar and pestle, or a ball-mill
grinder, may be used to grind the sample into a homogeneous fine powder.
Samples are combusted under high vacuum in small tin capsules. Recent
advances in mass spectrometry have resulted in less tissue required for analysis. The
exact amount of material is dependent on the concentration of carbon, nitrogen, and/or
sulphur in the sample, and the sensitivity of the mass spectrometer used. Typically C and
N data can be obtained simultaneously by using a helium diluter (an inert gas used to
carry the sample through the system), bringing the carbon peak to a similar amplitude as
that of nitrogen (nitrogen being far less abundant in organic materials). For example,
tissues with a C:N ratio in the range of 3-6 (e.g. fish muscle, most invertebrates) require
approximately 0.2-0.4 mg of dried sample and a dilution of ~15 psi helium to obtain both
the C and N isotope data. Whereas 2.0-4.0 mg of tissue may be required if the C:N ratio
is closer to 15 (e.g. some plant material), to have an adequate amount of nitrogen in the
sample. The large amount of carbon must then be diluted using ~22 psi helium to obtain
data for both elements. For those samples with extremely high C:N ratios where carbon
dilution is inadequate, separate analyses may be required to obtain both C&N data. The
sulphur content of aquatic species is also highly variable, ranging from 0.1% to 9.0%
(Mekhtiyeva et al. 1976), being highest in marine organisms. Hence the range of
required sample sizes is equally variable (2.0-15.0 mg).
Ideally, five times the amount of tissue required for a single analysis should be
submitted to a lab. This allows for replicate samples that may be needed in case of
technical problems, and serves as an indicator of instrumental precision within runs. It is
also recommended that a single sample of a common specimen be included in each run to
act as an “internal standard”, allowing for comparisons across runs.
Additional techniques
Lipid extraction & normalization
The lipid content (which can be estimated from C:N ratio) of a tissue can have a
large impact on δ13C values (McConnaughy and McRoy 1979, Tieszen et al. 1983, Rau et
al. 1992, Focken and Becker 1998); consequently many researchers choose a lipidextraction method such as chloroform-methanol (Bligh and Dyer 1959) or hexaneisopropanol (Radin 1981) prior to analysis. This serves as a form of standardization
across samples with unequal lipid content. In lieu of lipid extraction, some workers
“lipid normalize” data with high C:N ratios (> 4.0) (Rau et al. 1992, Kline et al. 1998,
Kline 1999, Kline and Willette 2002), using a formula:
δ ′13 C = δ 13 C + 6{−0.207 + 3.9 /[1 + 287(1 + 1 /(0.246C : N − 0.775)) / 93]}
that was first presented by McConnaughy and McRoy (1979), where δ´13C is the lipid
corrected stable carbon ratio.
Gut content analysis
While SIA is effective at integrating long-term assimilation of nutrients, it may
not necessarily reflect short-term feeding patterns (Persson and Hansson 1999,
Johannsson et al. 2001, Hart and Lovvorn 2002). It is recommended that whenever
possible, SIA should be combined with gut content analysis (Rau et al. 1983, Mihuc and
Toetz 1994, Whitledge and Rabeni 1997, Beaudoin et al. 1999, Johannsson et al. 2001,
Grey et al. 2002, Renones et al. 2002). The two techniques, in tandem, can be
complementary (Yoshioka et al. 1994, Vaz et al. 1999, Davenport and Bax 2002, Grey et
al. 2002) and will likely aid in interpretation of processed data (Evans-White et al. 2001,
Parkyn et al. 2001).
A consumer’s stable isotope ratios are relatively accurate reflections of the
assimilated portion of its diet. However, as energy transfer occurs in biological systems,
isotopic fractionation (change) takes place, resulting in alterations of the consumer’s
tissue ratios relative to its energy source.
O’Leary (1988) defined isotope fractionation by the equation:
∆δ =
[δ * X ( A) − δ * X ( B)]
1 + δ * X ( A) / 1000
where ∆δ is the change in isotope ratio that occurs in the reaction from substrate A to
product B, and δ*X(A) and δ*X(B) are the corresponding stable isotope ratios. This
value will have a positive sign when the heavier isotope is transformed more slowly.
Mariotti et al. (1981) described isotope fractionation as “partition of isotopes
between two compounds containing the same element (or between two phases) with
different isotopic ratios.” The authors generated fractionation factors (ε) to express the
expected difference (in ‰) between the product and the substrate from which it is
Hobson and Clark (1992a) defined fractionation as changes in isotopic signal
between diet and consumer tissues, occurring by two processes: 1) selective biochemical
assimilation of dietary components with varying signatures, and 2) isotopic
discrimination. The authors used the function:
D t = D d + ∆dt
to describe the process, where D t is the isotopic signature of consumer tissue, D d is the
isotopic signature of the diet, and ∆dt is the fractionation factor.
Animal SI ratios relative to diet
Laboratory experiments with animals initially defined the relationship between
the carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios of diet and consumer. DeNiro and Epstein (1978)
raised a variety of species on homogenous diets of known isotopic composition, and
found animal tissue carbon to be 13C enriched roughly 1‰ relative to the diet (avg. = +0.8
± 1.1‰, range = -0.6 to +2.7‰). This enrichment can be negligible in some species
(Haines and Montague 1979, Focken and Becker 1998, Post 2002), and varies across
ecosystems (del Giorgio and France 1996, France and Peters 1997, Vander Zanden and
Rasmussen 2001). Freshwater consumers (0.2‰) tend to be less enriched relative to diet
than estuarine (0.5‰), coastal (0.8‰), and open-ocean (1.1‰) consumers (France and
Peters 1997).
Consumer nitrogen, meanwhile, tends to be 15N enriched by roughly 3-5‰
relative to diet (avg. = +3.0 ± 2.6‰, range = -0.5 to +9.2‰, DeNiro and Epstein 1981,
Minagawa and Wada 1984). This enrichment is variable across species and systems
(Vander Zanden and Rasmussen 2001), but in a broader context has been demonstrated to
be fairly consistent in both lab and field (Post 2002).
One exception to the accepted isotopic relationships between consumer and
consumed (increasing amounts of tissue 15N at increasing trophic levels) may be aquatic
parasite-host associations. These trophic links have been relatively unstudied, and have
yielded ambiguous results (Doucett et al. 1999a, Iken et al. 2001, Pinnegar et al. 2001,
Deudero et al. 2002), possibly due to differential tissue and nutrient selectivity and
metabolism of different parasite species.
Mechanisms responsible for fractionation
Biochemical processes are largely responsible for the fractionation effects
measured in animal species. Respiration of carbon dioxide that is 13C-depleted relative to
the animal (DeNiro and Epstein 1978, Perkins and Speakman 2001) may explain slight
C enrichment in animals relative to their diet (DeNiro and Epstein 1978).
Discrimination against the heavier isotope (13C) during pyruvate oxidation in lipogenesis
(DeNiro and Epstein 1977) results in lipid tissue becoming 13C-depleted.
Transamination, wherein transfer of NH2 from glutamic acid to aspartic acid in an
animal’s cells proceeds 1.0083 times faster with 14NH2 than 15NH2 (Macko et al. 1986), is
a possible explanation for tissue 15N enrichment during periods of food deprivation.
Excretion of isotopically “light” urea and ammonia (Kirshenbaum et al. 1947, Macko et
al. 1982, Altabet and Small 1990) is likely responsible for the observed 3-5‰ increase in
N content at successively higher trophic levels (Minagawa and Wada 1984).
Equilibration with a diet in lab and field: Growth vs. turnover
In an organism that has shifted diet to a food source with a unique isotopic
signature, two mechanisms (growth and tissue turnover) exist that contribute to isotopic
change. An alteration in isotope ratios during rapid growth can be attributed to a
“dilution” of the previous ratio by added tissue of differing isotopic composition, while
the second mechanism for isotopic change, metabolic turnover, involves a replacement of
old tissue with new, and occurs despite no net growth in the animal.
Due to differences in photosynthetic pathways, terrestrial C3 and C4 plants have
different 13C/12C ratios (-32 to –22‰ and –23 to –9‰, respectively). Using these
differences, Tieszen et al. (1983) changed a diet based on C4 plants (corn) to one of C3
plants (wheat) and shifted stable carbon isotope ratios of gerbils (Meriones unguienlatus)
towards that of the new source. In an earlier lab experiment with crabs, Haines and
Montague (1979) demonstrated a change in δ13C values upon a diet switch that reflected
the new food sources. Persson and Hansson (1999) determined that three months were
required for the isotopic composition of new prey items to be detectable in consumer
(roach, Rutilus rutilus, perch, Perca fluviatilus, and bream, Abramis brama) tissue.
Johannsson et al. (2001) observed that the tissue turnover rate of δ13C was much slower
than δ15N in opossum shrimp, Mysis relicta.
Different tissues tend to reflect the new diet’s ratios at different rates. Tieszen et
al. (1983) found liver carbon turnover occurred most quickly while carbon in hair was
replaced most slowly. Differential tissue turnover rates were also observed by Hobson
and Clark (1992b), who ranked turnover rates in Japanese quail (Coturnix japonica) as
follows: liver>blood, muscle>>bone collagen. The authors calculated carbon half-lives
for liver (2.6 days), blood (11.4 days), muscle (12.4 days), and bone collagen (173.3
Slow metabolic turnover rates in ectotherms (due to lower energy requirements
relative to endotherms) may explain the greater influence of growth on isotope changes in
species such as broad whitefish (Coregonus nasus, Hesslein et al. 1993), mysids
(Gorokhova and Hansson 1999), red drum larvae (Sciaenops ocellatus, Herzka and Holt
2000), goby (Rhinogobius sp., Maruyama et al. 2001a), brown shrimp (Penaeus aztecus,
Fry and Arnold 1982, Gleason 1986), larval krill (Euphasia superba, Frazer et al. 1997),
and winter flounder (Pseudopleuronectes americanus, Bosley et al. 2002).
Tissue δ13C of recently emerged Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) in streams bears a
marine signature (-20 to –21.8‰) that is derived maternally from the female returning
from the ocean. After a short but rapid period of summer growth (< 2 months) isotopic
dilution causes tissue δ13C to closely mirror local food sources (-24.6 to -27‰) (Doucett
et al. 1996a). Smallmouth bass (Micropterus dolomieu, Vander Zanden et al. 1998),
brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis, Doucett et al. 1999b), and brown trout (Salmo trutta,
McCarthy and Waldron 2000) have a maternally derived 15N content (enriched) upon
hatching, but this signal is rapidly diluted during early growth on a diet consisting of prey
from low trophic levels.
Endothermic animals, with higher metabolic demands, are capable of showing
altered isotope ratios due to metabolism alone (Tieszen et al. 1983). In ectotherms, the
effects of metabolism on isotopic alterations may be significant in older, slower-growing
animals (Hesslein et al. 1993).
The predictable relationships between animals and their diet for δ13C (0-1‰
difference) and δ15N (3-5‰ difference) (DeNiro and Epstein 1978, 1981) has made
possible the study of food webs using stable isotopes (McConnaughy and McRoy 1979,
Rau et al. 1983, Minagawa and Wada 1984). Generalized food web structure has been
described for freshwater (Figure 1, Estep and Vigg 1985, Fry 1991, Yoshioka et al. 1994,
Zohary et al. 1994, Keough et al. 1996, Fry et al. 1999, Vander Zanden et al. 1999a,
Yoshii et al. 1999, Harvey and Kitchell 2000, Beaudoin et al. 2001, Fisher et al. 2001,
Jepsen and Winemiller 2002, Woodward and Hildrew 2002), estuarine (Peterson et al.
1985, 1986, Kwak and Zedler 1997, Fantle et al. 1999, Hughes et al. 2000), and marine
(Rau et al. 1981, Fry 1988, Hobson and Welch 1992, Rau et al. 1992, Hansson et al.
1997, Ian Perry et al. 1999, Davenport and Bax 2002) ecosystems.
δ N
primary producers
main stem
δ C
Figure 1. Generalized dual isotope plot (δ13C and δ15N) for biota in freshwater
ecosystems (lakes and streams). Ranges were arbitrarily generated based on Estep and
Vigg (1985), Fry (1991), Keough et al. (1996), Vander Zanden and Rasmussen (1999),
Harvey and Kitchell (2000), Beaudoin et al. (2001), Fisher et al. (2001), Jepsen and
Winemiller (2002), and do not encompass all observed literature values.
Larger scale patterns, such as δ13C depletion towards polar extremes (Rau et al.
1991), have also been noted. Reconstructions of fisheries abundance and trophic
interactions (Badalamenti et al. 2002, Pinnegar et al. 2002) have been aided by
paleoecological techniques (Finney et al. 2002, Struck et al. 2002) and analysis of
archived scale collections (Wainright et al. 1993, Satterfield and Finney 2002, Struck et
al. 2002).
Primary productivity
Stable isotope signatures at the base of food webs in estuaries (Cifuentes et al.
1988, Middelburg and Nieuwenhuize 1998, Cloern et al. 2002), lakes (Kling et al. 1992,
France 1995a, Grey and Jones 1999, Leggett et al. 1999, Owen et al. 1999a), and the
marine environment (Rau et al. 1991, Ishihi et al. 2001, Vizzini et al. 2002, Anderson and
Fourqurean 2003) can be highly variable (Rau 1980, Gu et al. 1994, Zohary et al. 1994,
Kline 1999, Leggett et al. 2000). Stable carbon ratios of primary producers can be a
function of chlorophyll a, phosphorus, and carbon dioxide concentrations (Yamamuro et
al. 1995, Gu et al. 1996a, Leggett et al. 1999), light intensity and water velocity (Osmond
et al. 1981, MacLeod and Barton 1998, Finlay et al. 1999), upwelling, bloom, and flood
events (Estep and Vigg 1985, Bode et al. 2003), and dissolved organic (France 1999,
France 2000, Burd et al. 2002), inorganic (Keough et al. 1998), and bacterial (Van Dover
and Fry 1994, Hall and Meyer 1998) carbon sources.
Boundary layer diffusion (the flow of dissolved gases in the medium surrounding
an organism) of carbon dioxide influences isotopic fractionation during photosynthesis.
Benthic algae are CO2 limited, and therefore cannot preferentially take up the lighter
isotope (12CO2). Planktonic algae are surrounded by an abundance of available CO2, and
therefore can discriminate against the heavier isotope (13CO2). Thus, benthic algae are
enriched in 13C relative to planktonic algae (France 1995a, Hecky and Hesslein 1995),
and the differences are passed on to consumers (France 1995b).
Variation in the 15N content of organisms at the base of lake food webs (Gu et al.
1994) will influence the interpretation of trophic level of species higher in the food chain.
Comparison of trophic levels across lakes using δ15N (Cabana and Rasmussen 1994) has
been aided by measuring the stable nitrogen ratios of long lived primary consumers such
as unionid mussels (Lampsilis sp., Anodonta sp., and Elliptio sp., Cabana and Rasmussen
1996, Vander Zanden et al. 1997, Vander Zanden and Rasmussen 1999) and clams
(Potamocorbula amurensis, Fry 1999) that integrate temporal variability of planktonic
isotope ratios into a baseline signal.
The knowledge that the δ15N of higher predators represents an integration of
trophic levels over the life span of the organism has enabled researchers to correlate δ15N
with tissue concentrations of contaminants such as mercury (Cabana and Rasmussen
1994, Jarman et al. 1996, Atwell et al. 1998, Bowles et al. 2001, Power et al. 2002a) and
organochlorines (Spies et al. 1989, Kidd et al. 1995, Kiriluk et al. 1995, Jarman et al.
1996, Kucklick et al. 1996, Kidd et al. 1998). Using such relationships, predictive
models have been developed where invasive species have caused longer food chains and
higher contaminant body burdens in top predators (Cabana and Rasmussen 1994,
Swanson et al. 2003). However, in some situations trophic level (as measured by δ15N)
has had limited power in explaining variability of mercury concentrations relative to
other environmental variables such as pH (Greenfield et al. 2001). Other factors that can
influence the relationship between δ15N of higher predators and lipophilic contaminant
concentrations include carbon sources (Power et al. 2002a) and uptake and clearance
rates of the contaminant (Broman et al. 1992).
Migratory patterns
Freshwater and marine nutrients have distinct carbon (Craig 1953, Peters et al.
1978), nitrogen (Peters et al. 1978, Owens 1987), and sulphur (Mekhtiyeva et al. 1976)
isotope signatures (marine systems generally have higher amounts of the heavier
isotopes, Peterson and Fry 1987). Species that derive biomass from the different
environments will have correspondingly different stable isotope signatures, allowing for
the identification of migrant individuals. Anadromous Arctic charr (Salvelinus alpinus),
brown trout, and brook trout were identified by marine carbon (Bunn et al. 1989, Doucett
et al. 1999b, 1999c, McCarthy and Waldron 2000), nitrogen (Doucett et al. 1999b,
1999c, McCarthy and Waldron 2000), and sulphur (Doucett et al. 1999b, 1999c)
signatures. Marine and freshwater feeding has also been distinguished for broad
whitefish and Arctic cisco (Coregonus autumnalis, Hesslein et al. 1991, Kline et al.
1998), harbour seals (Phoca vitulina, in combination with essential fatty acid analysis,
Smith et al. 1996), alosids (Alosa spp., in combination with strontium otolith analysis,
Limburg 1998, MacAvoy et al. 2000), and a variety of migratory birds (Lott et al. 2003).
Isotopic differences may also exist at smaller scales (regional, local). As long as
nutrient sources for consumers are isotopically distinct, then nutrient assimilation can be
distinguished and movement patterns identified. For example, isotopic differences
identified two populations of catfish (Silirus biwaensis, Takai and Sakamoto 1999) and
movements by landlocked goby (Maruyama et al. 2001b) in Lake Biwa, wild and
released abalone (Haliotis diversicolor) in northeastern Taiwan (Lee et al. 2002), and
inshore and offshore feeding by seabirds in the northeast Pacific (Hobson et al. 1994).
SIA has also been used to demonstrate little migratory activity by young-of-the-year
herring (Clupea harengus), sprat (Sprattus sprattus), smelt (Osmerus eperlanus), and
pikeperch (Stizostedion lucioperca) in the Baltic Sea (Hansson et al. 1997), and the
consumption of littoral invertebrates by omnivorous mice (Peromyscus maniculatus) on
islands in the Gulf of California (Stapp and Polis 2003).
Mixing models
When organisms have two or more sources of energy for growth, mixing models
have been employed to determine the relative contribution of the sources. These include
marine-derived nitrogen in freshwater food webs from spawning Pacific salmon
(Oncorhynchus spp., Kline et al. 1990, 1993, Bilby et al. 1996, Ben-David et al. 1997,
Figure 2) and alosids (MacAvoy et al. 2000).
secondary carnivores
primary carnivores
salmon nitrogen
δ N
primary producers
atmospheric nitrogen
% marine nitrogen
Figure 2. Mixing model describing the influence of marine (salmon) derived nutrients
on stable nitrogen ratios within a freshwater food web. Organisms using 100% marinederived nitrogen are 15N-enriched ca. 7‰ relative to organisms using nitrogen fixed in
terrestrial/freshwater systems. Adapted from Kline et al. 1990.
Mixing models have also been used to identify anthropogenic nutrient inputs to
riparian food webs (Wayland and Hobson 2001), to estimate the degree of dietary overlap
by fishes (Bootsma et al. 1996, Gu et al. 1996b, Genner et al. 1999), and to determine
food sources for mayflies (Baetis spp., Hershey et al. 1993), crayfish (Oronectes sp.,
Whitledge and Rabeni 1997) and other invertebrates (Hall and Meyer 1998, Hart and
Lovvorn 2002).
Multiple-isotope mixing models, however, have been criticized (Ben-David and
Schell 2001, Phillips 2001, Phillips and Gregg 2001, Phillips and Koch 2002), due
largely to the implicit assumption that organisms obtain equal proportions of bulk carbon
and nitrogen from a single food source. Furthermore, mixing models are often not
useable because of high variability and overlapping values of food sources (Rosenfeld
and Roff 1992, France 1995c).
An oft-studied application of mixing models in freshwater ecosystems is in the
analysis of the contribution of allochthonous (terrestrial) and autochthonous (in-stream)
nutrients to production (Rau 1980, Palmer et al. 2001, Cloern et al. 2002). Determination
of source carbon dependence by stream biota is calculated using the function (Fry and
Sherr 1984, Junger and Planas 1994, Doucett et al. 1996a):
⎛ δ 13 C fish − δ 13 C autochthonous − fx
% allochthonous = ⎜ 13
⎜δ C
allochthonous − δ C autochthonous
⎟ ×100
where f is the trophic enrichment factor (typically 0-1‰, DeNiro and Epstein 1978, Post
2002), x is the trophic position of the animal, and δ13Callochthonous and δ13Cautochthonous are
the average stable carbon isotope ratios of terrestrial leaf matter and in-stream algae,
The contribution of the two sources has been successfully identified for
invertebrates (Rounick et al. 1982, Bunn et al. 1989, Junger and Planas 1994, Doucett et
al. 1996a, Whitledge and Rabeni 1997, Huryn et al. 2001) and fish (Araujo-Lima et al.
1986, Bunn et al. 1989, Forsberg et al. 1993, Doucett et al. 1996a, Vaz et al. 1999,
Benedito-Cecilio et al. 2000, Perry et al. 2003), but high algal variability has led some
authors to suggest that the application is site-specific (Rosenfeld and Roff 1992, Zah et
al. 2001) and therefore inconclusive (France 1995c, Doucett et al. 1996b, France 1996).
The use of two isotopes (e.g. 15N along with 13C) has aided in the interpretation of
nutrient sources (France 1997, Collier et al. 2002, Leite et al. 2002).
When the assimilation of nutrients from different sources is unclear, tracer studies
involving isotopically labeled (e.g. highly enriched in 15N) compounds may be used.
Nitrogen cycling in a tundra river (Peterson et al. 1997), a tropical rainforest (Merriam et
al. 2002), a prairie stream (Evans-White et al. 2001), and an estuary (Hughes et al. 2000)
have been calculated using this approach. Amino acids may also be isotopically labelled
and fed to organisms to track nutrient incorporation into tissues (Owen et al. 1999b,
Hirons et al. 2001, Epp et al. 2002).
Nutrient input
Stable isotopes have been effective at detecting the input and uptake of nutrients
in aquatic ecosystems. Marine-derived (oceanic) nutrients carried by anadromous salmon
(Kline et al. 1990, Kline et al. 1993, Bilby et al. 1996, Ben-David et al. 1997, Bilby et al.
1998, Fisher Wold and Hershey 1999, Szepanski et al. 1999, Milner et al. 2000, Helfield
and Naiman 2001, Chaloner et al. 2002), alosids (Garman and Macko 1998, MacAvoy et
al. 2000, 2001), and marine birds (Mizutani and Wada 1988, Stapp et al. 1999) have been
shown to provide an energy subsidy in streams, lakes and estuaries, and on islands.
The impact of humans (through nutrient inputs) on the aquatic environment has
also been detected using stable isotope signatures. Human sewage is generally enriched
relative to the receiving environment (Heaton 1986, Gearing et al. 1991, Lake et al.
2001), and has been implicated in enriching biota in riparian and offshore food webs
(Rau et al. 1981, Estep and Vigg 1985, Spies et al. 1989, Van Dover et al. 1992,
Wainright et al. 1996, Hansson et al. 1997, Harvey and Kitchell 2000, Wayland and
Hobson 2001). Long-lived primary consumers (e.g. unionid mussels) integrate the
nitrogen signature in receiving waters (Fry 1999, Lake et al. 2001), and δ15N values of
such primary consumers have been correlated with human population density (Cabana
and Rasmussen 1996). Other effluents that have unique isotope signatures include pulp
mill effluent (Wassenaar and Culp 1996, Wayland and Hobson 2001), fish offal
(Anderson et al. 1999), and aquaculture wastes (Yokoyama et al. 2002, Yamada et al.
2003). Agricultural practices also generate distinct nitrogen and oxygen signatures that
can be detected in rivers (Heaton 1986, Peterson et al. 1993, McClelland et al. 1997,
Johnston et al. 1999, Chang et al. 2002, Fry et al. 2003). Run-off and leaching of manure
into waterways generates nitrate that is 15N-enriched (~8‰) relative to atmospheric
nitrogen and synthetic fertilizers (~0‰) (Peterson and Fry 1987, Wassenaar 1995).
Diet shifts
Stable isotopes of nitrogen and carbon can identify shifts in diet from one food
source to another throughout a species’ life history. SIA has detected ontogenetic diet
shifts in brown trout (Grey 2001), dusky grouper (Epinephilus marginatus, Renones et al.
2002), brook charr (Power et al. 2002b), opossum shrimp (Branstrator et al. 2000),
migrating salmon smolts (Kline and Willette 2002), and deposit-feeding polychaetes
(Hentschel 1998), while other researchers have found no evidence of an ontogenetic diet
shift (Vander Zanden et al. 1998) despite a positive relationship between fish size and
isotopes of nitrogen and carbon (Guiger et al. 2002). Changes in diet and food web
structure after species invasions in lakes have also been measured using SIA (Mitchell et
al. 1996, Kidd et al. 1999, Vander Zanden et al. 1999b), as well as evidence of
cannibalism by trout species (Grey et al. 2002, Harvey et al. 2002) and shifts by island
rodents and beetles from terrestrial sources in wet years to marine sources in dry years
(Stapp et al. 1999).
Stable isotope microanalysis of fish otoliths can provide a year-by-year account of
feeding history (Schwarcz et al. 1998). This technique can identify spawning stocks (Gao
and Beamish 1999, Gao et al. 2001a), distinguish lagoonal vs. oceanic (Dufour et al.
1998) and hatchery vs. wild (Weber et al. 2002) feeding, and determine the influence of
temperature on growth (Gao et al. 2001b, Gao and Beamish 2003)
Large-bodied species
The majority of isotope studies in aquatic systems involve smaller-bodied
invertebrate and piscine species, although some work has been done on larger-bodied
fish, mammals, and reptiles. The trophic ecology of whales (Abend and Smith 1995,
1997, Hobson and Schell 1998, Hooker et al. 2001, Hoekstra et al. 2002), sharks (Fisk et
al. 2002), seals (Kurle and Worthy 2001, Kurle 2002), and turtles (Godley et al. 1998,
Hatase et al. 2002) has been described using SIA.
Although some of the potential challenges in stable isotope ecology have been
described above, there are other factors that may hamper a researcher’s ability to use SIA
to describe feeding relationships in the field. Gannes et al. (1997) stated that assuming an
animal’s measured isotope ratios directly reflect the contribution of food sources to its
diet is potentially erroneous for three reasons. These are: (1) variable assimilation
efficiencies of dietary components, (2) isotopic fractionation, and (3) differential
allocation of nutrients to specific tissues. The authors specifically noted the use of
carbohydrates stores as more labile energy sources, leading to a lesser influence of these
inputs on final δ13C in archaeological studies of human remains.
Variation between seasons, sites, species, individuals, and tissues also presents
methodological and statistical challenges for stable isotope research (Lancaster and
Waldron 2001). Large intraspecific variations have been found in tilapia (Oreochromis
aureus, Gu et al. 1997), lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush, Vander Zanden et al. 2000)
and deposit-feeding polychaetes (Hentschel 1998). Seasonal differences in isotope ratios
(Lorrain et al. 2002) may be overcome by time-averaging (O'Reilly et al. 2002). While
mathematical models have shown that growing and adult animals should show the same
isotope ratios (Ponsard and Averbuch 1999), tissue delta values can be affected by
energetics (Harvey et al. 2002) and the nutritional quality of the diet (Hobson and Clark
1992a, Fantle et al. 1999).
Tissue differences
Fractionation strongly affects the resultant isotopic composition of differing
tissues within an organism. Lipid rich tissues tend to be most 13C-depleted (Tieszen et al.
1983), yet in Lake Ontario biota, δ15N and % lipid were correlated, but δ13C and % lipid
were not (Kiriluk et al. 1995). Other research has found negative correlations of δ13C
with C:N ratio (Gu et al. 1996b), percent carcass lipid (Focken and Becker 1998), and red
muscle lipid content (Doucett et al. 1999d).
Estep and Vigg (1985) found consistent differences (2-3‰) between muscle and
scale δ C in both cui-ui (Chasmistes cujus) and Tahoe sucker (Catostomus tahoensis).
Hesslein et al. (1993) found liver δ13C and δ34S to be –4.1 ± 0.3‰ and –4.4 ± 0.4‰,
respectively, relative to muscle, in growing broad whitefish. Other researchers have
found differences between eggs and muscle in fish (Bilby et al. 1996, McCarthy and
Waldron 2000, Grey 2001), while an assortment of tissues have been compared in other
aquatic species with various results (Hobson et al. 1996, Gorokhova and Hansson 1999,
Pinnegar and Polunin 1999, McCarthy and Waldron 2000, Lorrain et al. 2002). It is,
therefore, recommended that a variety of individuals and tissues be analyzed to
accurately reflect the overall consumption pattern and fractionation effects for a group of
study animals, particularly those captured in the field.
Nutritional status
The nutritional status of animals collected in the field can have a strong influence
on tissue isotope ratios. Hobson et al. (1993) demonstrated 15N enrichment in Japanese
quail muscle, liver, bone, and blood after 17 days rearing on a diet designed to maintain,
but not increase, body weight. This experiment was an attempt to model conditions
encountered during fasting, and was supported by 15N enrichment in liver and muscle of
female Ross geese (Chen Rossi) during egg laying and incubation, a period during which
the bird consumes no food. Enrichment was also observed in crows that lost body mass
during the course of an experiment (Hobson and Clark 1992a). The authors attributed the
observed enrichments to either retention of enriched nitrogen for protein synthesis (i.e.
excretion of depleted nitrogen, Mizutani and Wada 1988, Altabet and Small 1990), or
discriminatory hydrolysis of amino acids with different δ15N values (Gaebler et al. 1966).
Enrichment of salmon tissues following a period of fasting during the spawning
migration (Doucett et al. 1999d) was attributed to isotopic fractionation associated with
protein recycling (Macko et al. 1986). Tissues can also become 13C-enriched during
periods of food deprivation (Haines and Montague 1979) due to the respiration of
isotopically light CO2 (DeNiro and Epstein 1978, Perkins and Speakman 2001). Other
workers, however, have found no effect of fasting on stable isotope ratios (larval krill,
Frazer et al. 1997, mysids, Gorokhova and Hansson 1999, red drum larvae, Herzka and
Holt 2000).
The effect of age on tissue isotope ratios has received some attention. No
influence of age on δ15N was found in marine mussels (Minagawa and Wada 1984) or
lake trout (Kiriluk et al. 1995). However, Overmann and Parrish (2001) found that 81%
of variation in walleye (Stizostedion vitreum) δ15N was accounted for by age, with diet
having little effect, and cod (Gadus morhua) otolith δ13C has also been shown to increase
with age (Schwarcz et al. 1998).
The use of SIA as an analytical technique is becoming more widespread and
further research can only help in fully understanding the processes responsible for
observable differences in the atomic composition of living and non-living things. The
advantage of SIA over conventional techniques is in its allowance for non-lethal
sampling, and the integrative picture of short- or long-term diet/metabolism it provides.
It has become a valuable tool that when coupled with dietary information helps establish
food web interactions and energy flow in various ecosystems.
The observed deviations from established patterns in stable isotope ecology are a
reminder of the importance of variations and unpredictability in biological systems, but
they by no means prevent the effective use of stable isotopes in field and lab studies.
Instead, they require the researcher’s awareness of potentially misleading observations in
interpretation of stable isotope data.
The authors thank Wayne Fairchild and Scott Brown for their continuing interest
in stable isotope analysis, and acknowledge the great body of advice received from Feroz
Alam, Richard Doucett, Robert Drimmie, Adam Fowler, David Green, William Mark,
Paul Middlestead, Gilles St. Jean, Peter Stowe, and John Tidswell over the years. An
earlier draft of this manuscript was greatly improved by comments from William Hagar
and two reviewers. Marie Clement provided a French translation of the abstract. The
Toxic Substances Research Initiative and the Environmental Sciences Strategic Research
Fund provided partial funding for this work.
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Stable Isotope Laboratories in Canada (from geology.uvm.edu/isogeochem.html, with
contact information where available)
Isotope Science Laboratory
Department of Physics and Astronomy
University of Calgary
2500 University Drive N.W.
Calgary, AB
T2N 1N4, Canada
Ph: (403) 220-6813
Fax: (403) 220-7773
Mass Spectrometry Laboratory
Department of Chemistry
University of Alberta
Edmonton, AB
T6G 2G2, Canada
Ph: (780) 492-5577
Fax: (780) 492-8231
Atlantic Canada
Stable Isotopes in Nature Laboratory
Department of Biology
University of New Brunswick
Loring Bailey Hall – room 155
Fredericton, NB
E3B 5A3, Canada
Ph: (506) 453-4967
Fax: (506) 453-3583
British Columbia
Biogeochemistry Facility
Centre for Earth and Ocean Research
University of Victoria
Petch Building, room 169
PO Box 3055 STN CSC
Victoria, BC
V8W 3P6, Canada
Ph: (250) 721-8848
Fax: (250) 472-4100
The University of Winnipeg Isotope Laboratory
Environmental Isotope Laboratory
Department of Earth Sciences
University of Waterloo
200 University Avenue West
Waterloo, ON
N2L 3G1, Canada
G.G. Hatch Isotope Laboratories
University of Ottawa
Faculty of Science (Earth Sciences)
140 Louis Pasteur
Ottawa, ON
K1N 6N5, Canada
Ph: (613) 562-5800 ext. 6836
Fax: (613) 562-5192
Laboratory of Stable Isotopic Studies
Department of Earth Sciences
Room 54 Western Science Centre
University of Western Ontario
London, ON
N6A 5B7, Canada
Ph: (519) 661-3881
Light Stable Isotope Laboratory
Geological Survey of Canada
601 Booth Street
Ottawa, ON
K1A 0E8
Stable Isotope and ICP/MS Laboratory
Department of Geological Sciences and Geological Engineering
Miller Hall, Queen’s University
Kingston, ON
K7L 3N6, Canada
Ph: (613) 533-2183
Fax: (613) 533-6592
Geological Survey of Canada-Quebec
880 chemin Sainte-Foy
Suite 840
Quebec, QC
G1S 2L2
University of Quebec-Montreal
Environment Canada Stable Isotope Hydrology and Ecology Laboratory
Saskatoon, SK
Saskatchewan Isotope Laboratory
Department of Geological Sciences
114 Science Place
University of Saskatchewan
Saskatoon, SK
S7N 5E2, Canada
Ph: (306) 966-5734
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