Sulphur stable isotopes can distinguish trophic dependence on sediments and plankton in boreal lakes


Landis Hare, INRS-ETE, 490 rue de la Couronne, Québec, QC, Canada G1K 9A9. E-mail:


1. Stable isotopes of carbon are useful for differentiating between freshwater food chains based on planktonic algae or benthic algae, but are reported to be of limited use for identifying food chains based on sedimentary detritus. Because data from marine systems suggest that stable isotopes of sulphur (δ34S values) have potential in this regard, we tested their utility in freshwater lakes.

2. We found that sulphate in the water column of four boreal lakes was enriched in 34S compared to the sulphur in bulk sediments from these lakes. Furthermore, within a given lake, insects known to feed on sediment (directly or via predation) had δ34S values similar to those of sediment, whereas planktonic and benthic invertebrates known to feed on suspended particles had δ34S values similar to those of sulphate in the water column.

3. Using the stable S isotope values of invertebrates that obtain their S from either the sediment or the water column as end members in a two-source mixing model, we show that two fish species obtain their food from both planktonic and sedimentary sources. Furthermore, model results suggest that, as expected, the more benthic-feeding fish species obtains more of its S from the sediment compartment than does the species that feeds in the water-column.

4. Our results suggest that measurements of stable sulphur isotopes provide a means of distinguishing between members of food chains that are based in the water column from those based on sedimentary detritus. As such, they would be a useful complement to stable C isotopes that are used to distinguish between food chains based on planktonic or benthic algae.