1. Fatty acids (FAs) have been widely applied as trophic biomarkers in aquatic food web studies. However, current knowledge of inter- and intraspecific variation in consumer FA compositions across spatial and temporal scales is constrained to a few pelagic taxa.
2. We analysed the FAs of 22 taxa of benthic macroinvertebrates, zooplankton and fish collected from the littoral, pelagic and profundal habitats of nine boreal oligotrophic lakes over spring, summer and autumn. We quantified and compared the FA variance partitions contributed by species identity (i.e. an integrative effect of phylogenetic origin, life history and functional feeding guild of individual taxa), site and season using partial redundancy analysis both on all consumers and on benthic arthropods alone.
3. Species identity alone contributed 84.4 and 72.8% of explained FA variation of all consumers and benthic arthropods, respectively. Influences of site, season and all joint effects accounted for 0–11.3% only. Fatty acid profiles of primary consumers differentiated below class level, but those of predators were distinguishable only when they became more taxonomically distinct (i.e. among classes or higher).
4. Pelagic and profundal consumers showed stronger reliance on autochthonous resources than did their littoral counterparts as reflected by their higher ω3 to ω6 FA ratios. Polyunsaturated FAs (PUFAs) were increasingly retained with trophic levels, and saturated FAs (e.g. FA 16 : 0) gradually reduced. Ecologically, this trade-off enhances the trophic transfer efficiency and confirms the importance of PUFA-rich autotrophs in aquatic food webs.
5. Our findings indicate strong interspecific differences in FA requirements and assimilation among aquatic consumers from a wide range of taxonomic levels, habitats and lakes. Consumers were able to maintain homoeostasis in FA compositions across spatial and temporal changes in resource FAs, but consumer homoeostasis did not limit the effectiveness of FAs as trophic biomarkers.