Disentangling a Rainforest Food Web Using Stable Isotopes: Dietary Diversity in a Species-Rich Ant Community

Oecologia. 2003 Nov;137(3):426-35. doi: 10.1007/s00442-003-1347-8. Epub 2003 Jul 31.


For diverse communities of omnivorous insects such as ants, the extent of direct consumption of plant-derived resources vs. predation is largely unknown. However, determination of the extent of "herbivory" among ants may be crucial to understand the hyper-dominance of ants in tropical tree crowns, where prey organisms tend to occur scarcely and unpredictably. We therefore examined N and C stable isotope ratios (delta(15)N and delta(13)C) in 50 ant species and associated insects and plants from a tropical rainforest in North Queensland, Australia. Variation between ant species was pronounced (range of species means: 7.1 per thousand in delta(15)N and 6.8 per thousand in delta(13)C). Isotope signatures of the entire ant community overlapped with those of several herbivorous as well as predacious arthropods. Variability in delta(15)N between ants was not correlated with plant delta(15)N from which they were collected. Ant species spread out in a continuum between largely herbivorous and purely predacious taxa, with a high degree of omnivory. Ant species' delta(15)N were consistent with the trophic level predicted by natural feeding observations, but not their delta(13)C. Low delta(15)N levels were recorded for ant species that commonly forage for nectar on understorey or canopy plants, intermediate levels for species with large colonies that were highly abundant on nectar and honeydew sources and were predacious, and the highest levels for predominantly predatory ground-foraging species. Colonies of the dominant weaver-ants (Oecophylla smaragdina) had significantly lower delta(15)N in mature forests (where preferred honeydew and nectar sources are abundant) than in open secondary vegetation. N concentration of ant dry mass showed only very limited variability across species and no correlation with trophic levels. This study demonstrates that stable isotopes provide a powerful tool for quantitative analyses of trophic niche partitioning and plasticity in complex and diverse tropical omnivore communities.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Ants*
  • Environmental Monitoring / methods
  • Flowers
  • Food Chain*
  • Nitrogen Isotopes / analysis
  • Oxygen Isotopes / analysis
  • Plants / chemistry
  • Plants, Edible
  • Population Dynamics
  • Predatory Behavior
  • Trees*


  • Nitrogen Isotopes
  • Oxygen Isotopes