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Keywords:

  • marine mammals;
  • stable isotopes;
  • cetaceans;
  • pinnipeds;
  • trophic level;
  • isotopic turnover

Abstract

Stable isotope analysis (SIA) has emerged as a common tool in ecology and has proven especially useful in the study of animal diet, habitat use, movement, and physiology. SIA has been vigorously applied to the study of marine mammals, because most species live in habitats or undergo large migrations/movements that make them difficult to observe. Our review supplies a complete list of published SIA contributions to marine mammal science and highlights informative case examples in four general research areas: (1) physiology and fractionation, (2) foraging ecology and habitat use, (3) ecotoxicology, and (4) historic ecology and paleoecology. We also provide a condensed background of isotopic nomenclature, highlight several physiological considerations important for accurate interpretation of isotopic data, and identify research areas ripe for future growth. Because it is impossible to conduct controlled laboratory experiments on most marine mammal species, future studies in marine mammal ecology must draw on isotopic data collected from other organisms and be cognizant of key assumptions often made in the application of SIA to the study of animal ecology. The review is designed to be accessible to all audiences, from students unfamiliar with SIA to those who have utilized it in published studies.