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Using stable isotopes to trace long-distance dispersal in birds and other taxa


Keith A. Hobson, Canadian Wildlife Service, 115 Perimeter Road, Saskatoon, SK, Canada, S7N 0X4. Office: 306-975-4102, Fax: 306-975-4089; E-mail:


The study of long-distance dispersal (LDD) in animals may be advanced by recent applications of stable isotope analyses designed to track migratory organisms and to link populations throughout their annual cycle. This approach depends on there being enough isotopic difference in tissues among potential source populations such that individuals can be unequivocally assigned to their source. The isotopic mapping of such populations will be feasible only for species occurring in relatively few disjunct populations. However, the identification of isotopic outliers within known populations will be an extremely useful first step in the forensic application of stable isotopes to identify dispersal in general, and LDD in particular. The use of deuterium isotope analysis (δD) of tissues that can be assigned to its source (e.g. feather moult or its hair growth location) has provided a recent breakthrough in our ability to associate individuals with geographical origins at continental scales. The combination of this stable isotope with others and the ultimate combination of a variety of techniques, including the measurement of trace elements and molecular genetics markers, will undoubtedly improve resolution. The isotopic cataloguing of known history (i.e. philopatric) individuals within populations will be an important step in applying isotope techniques to evaluating LDD in any species. For aquatic insects, the isotopic marking of large numbers of individuals is possible through isotopic enrichment of local food webs using labelled compounds.