Can stable isotope ratios provide for community-wide measures of trophic structure?

Ecology. 2007 Jan;88(1):42-8. doi: 10.1890/0012-9658(2007)88[42:csirpf];2.


Stable isotope ratios (typically of carbon and nitrogen) provide one representation of an organism's trophic niche and are widely used to examine aspects of food web structure. Yet stable isotopes have not been applied to quantitatively characterize community-wide aspects of trophic structure (i.e., at the level of an entire food web). We propose quantitative metrics that can be used to this end, drawing on similar approaches from ecomorphology research. For example, the convex hull area occupied by species in delta13C-delta15N niche space is a representation of the total extent of trophic diversity within a food web, whereas mean nearest neighbor distance among all species pairs is a measure of species packing within trophic niche space. To facilitate discussion of opportunities and limitations of the metrics, we provide empirical and conceptual examples drawn from Bahamian tidal creek food webs. These examples illustrate how this methodology can be used to quantify trophic diversity and trophic redundancy in food webs, as well as to link individual species to characteristics of the food web in which they are embedded. Building from extensive applications of stable isotope ratios by ecologists, the community-wide metrics may provide a new perspective on food web structure, function, and dynamics.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bahamas
  • Carbon Isotopes
  • Ecology / methods*
  • Food Chain*
  • Isotope Labeling*
  • Nitrogen Isotopes
  • Plants


  • Carbon Isotopes
  • Nitrogen Isotopes