Global application of stable hydrogen and oxygen isotopes to wildlife forensics

Oecologia. 2005 Apr;143(3):337-48. doi: 10.1007/s00442-004-1813-y. Epub 2005 Feb 23.


Stable isotopes are being increasingly used in wildlife forensics as means of determining the origin and movement of animals. The heavy isotope content of precipitated water and snow (deltaD(p), delta(18)O(p)) varies widely and systematically across the globe, providing a label that is incorporated through diet into animal tissue. As a result, these isotopes are potentially ideal tracers of geographic origin. The hydrogen and oxygen isotope tracer method has excellent potential where (1) spatial variation of precipitation isotopes exist, and (2) strong, mechanistic relationships link precipitation and isotope ratios in biological tissue. Here, we present a method for interpolation of precipitation isotope values and use it to create global basemaps of growing-season (GS) and mean annual (MA) deltaD(p) and delta(18)O(p). The use of these maps for forensic application is demonstrated using previously published isotope data for bird feathers (deltaD(f)) in North America and Europe. The precipitation maps show that the greatest potential for applying hydrogen and oxygen isotope forensics exists in mid- to high-latitude continental regions, where strong spatial isotope gradients exist. We demonstrate that deltaD(f)/deltaD(p) relationships have significant predictive power both in North America and Europe, and show how zones of confidence for the assignment of origin can be described using these predictive relationships. Our analysis focuses on wildlife forensics, but the maps and approaches presented here will be equally applicable to criminal forensic studies involving biological materials. These maps are available in GIS format at

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Chemical Precipitation
  • Deuterium / pharmacokinetics*
  • Feathers / chemistry
  • Forensic Sciences / methods*
  • Geography
  • Isotope Labeling / methods*
  • Oxygen Isotopes / pharmacokinetics*
  • Seasons
  • Water / chemistry*


  • Oxygen Isotopes
  • Water
  • Deuterium