Size matters: comparing stable isotope ratios of tissue plugs and whole organisms

Erika G. Schielke and David M. Post

Limnol. Oceanogr. Methods 8:348-351 (2010) | DOI: 10.4319/lom.2010.8.348

ABSTRACT: Stable isotope analysis provides an integrated measure of diet source and trophic position and is becoming an increasingly popular tool in studies of food web structure and function. However, stable isotope analysis can require sacrificing whole organisms, which is not always practical or ethical. As an alternative, biopsy punches cause minimal mortality in fish and provide enough sample for stable isotope analysis. Researchers commonly use smaller tissue samples for stable isotope analysis. Such analyses rely on the untested assumption that the stable isotope ratios from small tissue samples are representative of whole organism stable isotope ratios. Here we test this assumption by comparing stable isotope ratios of carbon (δ13C) and nitrogen (δ15N) from tissue plugs and whole organisms over a range of fish sizes. We show that plugs from fish smaller than approximately 90 mm total length introduce a positive bias in δ15N. For larger fish, plugs provide a reliable and accurate means of measuring δ15N and δ13C, with the caveat that they introduce some variability in δ13C. Inclusion of overlying skin did not affect stable isotope measurements in our tissue samples.