King eiders use an income strategy for egg production: a case study for incorporating individual dietary variation into nutrient allocation research

Oecologia. 2010 Sep;164(1):1-12. doi: 10.1007/s00442-010-1619-z. Epub 2010 Apr 4.


The use of stored nutrients for reproduction represents an important component of life-history variation. Recent studies from several species have used stable isotopes to estimate the reliance on stored body reserves in reproduction. Such approaches rely on population-level dietary endpoints to characterize stored reserves ("capital") and current diet ("income"). Individual variation in diet choice has so far not been incorporated in such approaches, but is crucial for assessing variation in nutrient allocation strategies. We investigated nutrient allocation to egg production in a large-bodied sea duck in northern Alaska, the king eider (Somateria spectabilis). We first used Bayesian isotopic mixing models to quantify at the population level the amount of endogenous carbon and nitrogen invested into egg proteins based on carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios. We then defined the isotopic signature of the current diet of every nesting female based on isotope ratios of eggshell membranes, because diets varied isotopically among individual king eiders on breeding grounds. We used these individual-based dietary isotope signals to characterize nutrient allocation for each female in the study population. At the population level, the Bayesian and the individual-based approaches yielded identical results, and showed that king eiders used an income strategy for the synthesis of egg proteins. The majority of the carbon and nitrogen in albumen (C: 86 +/- 18%, N: 99 +/- 1%) and the nitrogen in lipid-free yolk (90 +/- 15%) were derived from food consumed on breeding grounds. Carbon in lipid-free yolk derived evenly from endogenous sources and current diet (exogenous C: 54 +/- 24%), but source contribution was highly variable among individual females. These results suggest that even large-bodied birds traditionally viewed as capital breeders use exogenous nutrients for reproduction. We recommend that investigations of nutrient allocation should incorporate individual variation into mixing models to reveal intraspecific variation in reproductive strategies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anseriformes / metabolism*
  • Bayes Theorem
  • Carbon Isotopes / metabolism
  • Diet*
  • Egg Proteins / biosynthesis*
  • Female
  • Nitrogen Isotopes / metabolism
  • Oviparity*


  • Carbon Isotopes
  • Egg Proteins
  • Nitrogen Isotopes