Explaining isotope trophic-step fractionation: why herbivorous fish are different

Authors

  • A. C. MILL,

    Corresponding author
    1. School of Marine Science and Technology, Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 4RU, UK,
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    • §

      Present address: FRS Marine Laboratory, 375 Victoria Road, Aberdeen AB11 9DB, UK.

  • J. K. PINNEGAR,

    1. Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS), Pakefield Road, Lowestoft, NR33 0HT, UK
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  • N. V. C. POLUNIN

    1. School of Marine Science and Technology, Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 4RU, UK,
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†Author to whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail: a.c.mill@marlab.ac.uk

Summary

  • 1An assumed constant trophic fractionation of 15N/14N between consumer and diet (usually 3·4 for diet–muscle tissue differences) allows inferences to be made about feeding interactions and trophic level in food web studies. However, considerable variability surrounds this constant, which may conceal subtle differences about the trophodynamics of consumers.
  • 2The feeding ecologies of herbivores and carnivores differ in terms of diet quality (in C : N terms) and food processing mechanisms, which may affect fractionation.
  • 3We present a new model that explores how consumer feeding rates, excretion rates and diet quality determine the 15N/14N ratios in the consumer's tissues and hence influence the magnitude of trophic fractionation.
  • 4Three herbivorous reef fish Acanthurus sohal, Zebrasoma xanthurum and Pomacentrus arabicus were chosen as study organisms. Empirical estimates of diet–tissue stable isotope fractionation were made in the field, and model parameters were derived from feeding observations and literature data.
  • 5The trophic fractionation values of A. sohal, Z. xanthurum and P. arabicus were 4·69, 4·47 and 5·25, respectively, by empirical measurement, and 4·41, 4·30 and 5·68, respectively, by model, indicating that herbivores have a higher trophic fractionation than the currently accepted value of 3·4.
  • 6The model was most sensitive to the excretion rate, which may differ between herbivores and carnivorous animals. This model is the first to determine stable isotope signatures of a consumer's diet mixture without applying a constant fractionation value.

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