Determining the transfer and transformation of organic matter in food webs is a fundamental challenge that has implications for sustainable management of ecosystems. Fatty acids (FA) offer a potential approach for resolving complex diet mixtures of organisms because they provide a suite of molecular tracers. Yet, uncertainties in the degree of their biochemical modification by consumers, due to selective retention or metabolism, have limited their application. Here, we consolidated 316 controlled feeding studies of aquatic ectotherms (fishes and invertebrates) involving 1404 species-diet combinations to assess the degree of trophic modification of FA in muscle tissue. We found a high degree of variability within and among taxa in the %FA in consumer muscle tissue versus %FA in diet regression equations. Most saturated FA had weak relationships with the diet (r2 < 0.30) and shallow slopes (m < 0.30), suggesting a lack of retention in muscle when fed in increasing amounts. Contrarily, several essential FA, including linoleic (18:2n-6) and α-linolenic acid (18:3n-3), exhibited significant relationships with the diet (m > 0.35, r2 > 0.50), suggesting supply limitations and selective retention in muscle by consumers. For all FA, relationships strengthened with increasing taxonomic specificity. We also demonstrated the utility of new correction equations by calculating the potential contributions of approximately 20 prey items to the diet of selected species of generalist fishes using a FA mixing model. Our analyses further reveal how a broad range of fishes and invertebrates convert or store these compounds in muscle tissue to meet physiological needs and point to their power in resolving complex diets in aquatic food webs. This article is part of the theme issue 'The next horizons for lipids as 'trophic biomarkers': evidence and significance of consumer modification of dietary fatty acids'.
Keywords: calibration coefficients; controlled feeding studies; mixing models; polyunsaturated fatty acid; trophic modification.