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Stable Isotope Ecology

  1. Jason Newton

Published Online: 15 JAN 2010

DOI: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0021231



How to Cite

Newton, J. 2010. Stable Isotope Ecology. eLS. .

Author Information

  1. Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre, NERC Life Sciences Mass Spectrometry Facility, East Kilbride, UK

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 15 JAN 2010

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Stable isotope geochemistry has proved to be an extremely useful tool in elucidating many ecological problems, with stable isotope ecology comprising the theme of a series of international conferences ( Stable isotopes can be used as biological tracers in the following ways: (i) to identify sources, for instance in determining the identity of basal carbon in a food web; (ii) to distinguish sources, for example to determine whether a breeding animal is using local resources or its own reserves; (iii) to quantify relative inputs in a system, for example determining the proportions of different prey items to a consumer's diet. When utilized carefully, stable isotope geochemistry provides some advantages over conventional methods, and provides an additional device for the ecologist. The following article provides a short reference for ecologists considering the inclusion of stable isotope analysis as part of their methodology.

Key concepts:

  • Stable isotopes are useful tracers of ecological processes.

  • Carbon stable isotopes are useful for tracing carbon sources and plant physiology.

  • Nitrogen stable isotope ratios in animal tissues are useful indicators of trophic level.

  • Combined carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios in animal tissues elucidate food webs and trophic niche.

  • Hydrogen and oxygen isotope ratios in animals reflect those of local precipitation.


  • stable isotopes;
  • ecology;
  • food webs;
  • diet;
  • migration