Stable isotopes

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What are they?

Stable isotopes are non-radioactive forms of elements that have similar chemical properties but vary in their atomic mass due to differences in the number of neutrons. The differences in atomic mass cause separation among isotopes of the same element during geochemical and metabolic processes. This phenomenon is known as isotopic fractionation.

Useful isotopes for migratory connectivity

Approximately two thirds of the known elements have more than one stable isotope, but isotopes of carbon (13C), nitrogen (15N), and hydrogen (also know as Deuterium, D) are among the most useful for studying migratory connectivity. There are two reasons for this.

  • Their patterns of isotopic fractionation are well understood and vary predictably across broad spatial scales.
  • They are naturally abundant, allowing them to be be detected in biological tissues.

Each of the aforementioned isotopes offers different clues about a bird’s molt location. Some of the most informative research on migratory connectivity uses multiple stable isotopes or uses stable isotopes in combination with genetic markers.

  • Stable-hydrogen isotopes vary strongly with latitude.
  • Stable-carbon isotopes show a similar pattern due to broad scale differences in water-use efficiency and photosynthesis strategy by plants.
  • Stable-sulfur isotopes differ between marine and terrestrial environments, making it possible to measure longitudinal origins of molt in species whose habitats extend to coastal regions.

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Collection

Feathers (claws, blood and muscle can also be used) are the most commonly used tissue in stable isotope investigations of migratory connectivity. Most species of migratory birds undergo a complete molt once each year between July and September on or near their breeding areas, and the isotopic signatures of foods eaten during this time become incorporated into feathers. Because isotopic signatures are mostly inert once stored in feather tissue, samples collected later on in the year provide information about the geographic origin of birds during molt.

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Analysis

Stable isotopes are analyzed using isotope ratio mass spectrometry, and sample results are expressed relative to a standard of known isotopic composition.

Stable isotope resources link

Using a variety of approaches strengthens connectivity research. Often an isotopic component would be useful but a scientist is not set up to carry out the analyses in their own lab. The labs listed below routinely carry out isotopic analyses of population connectivity.

Edited by Peter Marra, Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, marrap@si.edu.

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References

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