Variation in d15N and d13C trophic fractionation: Implications for aquatic food web studies

Vander Zanden, M. Jake, Joseph B. Rasmussen

Limnol. Oceanogr., 46(8), 2001, 2061-2066 | DOI: 10.4319/lo.2001.46.8.2061

ABSTRACT: Use of stable isotope techniques to quantify food web relationships requires a priori estimates of the enrichment or depletion in δ15N and δ13C values between prey and predator (known as trophic fractionation; hereafter Δδ15N and Δδ13C). We conducted a broad-scale analysis of Δδ15N and Δδ13C from aquatic systems, including three new field estimates. Carnivores had significantly higher Δδ15N values than herbivores. Furthermore, carnivores, invertebrates, and lab-derived estimates were significantly more variable than their counterparts ( f-test, p < 0.00001). Δδ13C was higher for carnivores than for herbivores (p = 0.001), while variances did not differ significantly. Excluding herbivores, the average Δδ15N and Δδ13C were 3.4‰ and 0.8‰, respectively. But even with unbiased fractionation estimates, there is variation in isotopic fractionation that contributes to error in quantitative isotope model outputs. We simulated the error variance in δ15N-based estimates of trophic position and two-source δ13C diet mixing models, explicitly considering the observed variation in Δδ15N and Δδ13C, along with the other potential error sources. The resultant error in trophic position and mixing model outputs was generally minor, provided that primary consumers were used as baseline indicators for estimating trophic position and that end member d13C values in dietary mixing models were sufficiently distinct.

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