Resolving temporal variation in vertebrate diets using naturally occurring stable isotopes

Oecologia. 2005 Aug;144(4):647-58. doi: 10.1007/s00442-005-0118-0. Epub 2005 Jul 22.


Assessments of temporal variation in diets are important for our understanding of the ecology of many vertebrates. Ratios of naturally occurring stable isotopes in animal tissues are a combination of the source elements and tissue specific fractionation processes, and can thus reveal dietary information. We review three different approaches that have been used to resolve temporal diet variation through analysis of stable isotopes. The most straightforward approach is to compare samples from the same type of tissue that has been sampled over time. This approach is suited to address either long or short-term dietary variation, depending on sample regime and which tissue that is sampled. Second, one can compare tissues with different metabolic rates. Since the elements in a given tissue have been assimilating during time spans specific to its metabolic rate, tissues with different metabolic rates will reflect dietary records over different periods. Third, comparisons of sections from tissues with progressive growth, such as hair, feathers, claws and teeth, will reveal temporal variation since these tissues will retain isotopic values in a chronological order. These latter two approaches are mainly suited to address questions regarding intermediate and short-term dietary variation. Knowledge of tissue specific metabolic rates, which determine the molecular turnover for a specific tissue, is of central importance for all these comparisons. Estimates of isotopic fractionation between source and measured target are important if specific hypotheses regarding the source elements are addressed. Estimates of isotopic fractionation, or at least of differences in fractionation between tissues, are necessary if different tissues are compared. We urge for more laboratory experiments aimed at improving our understanding of differential assimilation of dietary components, isotopic fractionation and metabolic routing. We further encourage more studies on reptiles and amphibians, and generally more studies utilizing multiple tissues with different turnover rates.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Transport, Active
  • Birds / physiology*
  • Diet / veterinary*
  • Ecosystem
  • Feeding Behavior
  • Fishes / physiology*
  • Isotopes / metabolism*
  • Mammals / physiology*
  • Seasons
  • Tissue Distribution


  • Isotopes