Determining origin in a migratory marine vertebrate: a novel method to integrate stable isotopes and satellite tracking


  • Corresponding Editor: P. K. Dayton.


Stable isotope analysis is a useful tool to track animal movements in both terrestrial and marine environments. These intrinsic markers are assimilated through the diet and may exhibit spatial gradients as a result of biogeochemical processes at the base of the food web. In the marine environment, maps to predict the spatial distribution of stable isotopes are limited, and thus determining geographic origin has been reliant upon integrating satellite telemetry and stable isotope data. Migratory sea turtles regularly move between foraging and reproductive areas. Whereas most nesting populations can be easily accessed and regularly monitored, little is known about the demographic trends in foraging populations. The purpose of the present study was to examine migration patterns of loggerhead nesting aggregations in the Gulf of Mexico (GoM), where sea turtles have been historically understudied. Two methods of geographic assignment using stable isotope values in known-origin samples from satellite telemetry were compared: (1) a nominal approach through discriminant analysis and (2) a novel continuous-surface approach using bivariate carbon and nitrogen isoscapes (isotopic landscapes) developed for this study. Tissue samples for stable isotope analysis were obtained from 60 satellite-tracked individuals at five nesting beaches within the GoM. Both methodological approaches for assignment resulted in high accuracy of foraging area determination, though each has advantages and disadvantages. The nominal approach is more appropriate when defined boundaries are necessary, but up to 42% of the individuals could not be considered in this approach. All individuals can be included in the continuous-surface approach, and individual results can be aggregated to identify geographic hotspots of foraging area use, though the accuracy rate was lower than nominal assignment. The methodological validation provides a foundation for future sea turtle studies in the region to inexpensively determine geographic origin for large numbers of untracked individuals. Regular monitoring of sea turtle nesting aggregations with stable isotope sampling can be used to fill critical data gaps regarding habitat use and migration patterns. Probabilistic assignment to origin with isoscapes has not been previously used in the marine environment, but the methods presented here could also be applied to other migratory marine species.