Effects of elemental composition on the incorporation of dietary nitrogen and carbon isotopic signatures in an omnivorous songbird

Oecologia. 2003 May;135(4):516-23. doi: 10.1007/s00442-003-1221-8. Epub 2003 Mar 28.


The use of stable isotopes to infer diet requires quantifying the relationship between diet and tissues and, in particular, knowing of how quickly isotopes turnover in different tissues and how isotopic concentrations of different food components change (discriminate) when incorporated into consumer tissues. We used feeding trials with wild-caught yellow-rumped warblers (Dendroica coronata) to determine delta15N and delta13C turnover rates for blood, delta15N and delta13C diet-tissue discrimination factors, and diet-tissue relationships for blood and feathers. After 3 weeks on a common diet, 36 warblers were assigned to one of four diets differing in the relative proportion of fruit and insects. Plasma half-life estimates ranged from 0.4 to 0.7 days for delta13C and from 0.5 to 1.7 days for delta15N . Half-life did not differ among diets. Whole blood half-life for delta13C ranged from 3.9 to 6.1 days. Yellow-rumped warbler tissues were enriched relative to diet by 1.7-3.6% for nitrogen isotopes and by -1.2 to 4.3% for carbon isotopes, depending on tissue and diet. Consistent with previous studies, feathers were the most enriched and whole blood and plasma were the least enriched or, in the case of carbon, slightly depleted relative to diet. In general, tissues were more enriched relative to diet for birds on diets with high percentages of insects. For all tissues, carbon and nitrogen isotope discrimination factors increased with carbon and nitrogen concentrations of diets. The isotopic signature of plasma increased linearly with the sum of the isotopic signature of the diet and the discrimination factor. Because the isotopic signature of tissues depends on both elemental concentration and isotopic signature of the diet, attempts to reconstruct diet from stable isotope signatures require use of mixing models that incorporate elemental concentration.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Body Weight
  • Carbon Isotopes / analysis*
  • Carbon Isotopes / blood
  • Diet*
  • Feathers / chemistry
  • Linear Models
  • Mass Spectrometry
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Nitrogen Isotopes / analysis*
  • Nitrogen Isotopes / blood
  • Songbirds / metabolism*
  • South Carolina


  • Carbon Isotopes
  • Nitrogen Isotopes