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Marine Ecology Progress Series

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MEPS 666:19-30 (2021)  -  DOI:

Shifting baselines: Integrating ecological and isotopic time lags improves trophic position estimates in aquatic consumers

Bianca Possamai1,*, David J. Hoeinghaus2, Alexandre M. Garcia1

1Instituto de Oceanografia, Universidade Federal do Rio Grande - FURG, Rio Grande, RS 96203-900, Brazil
2Department of Biological Sciences and the Advanced Environmental Research Institute, University of North Texas, Denton, TX 76203-5017, USA
*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Nitrogen stable isotope ratios (δ15N) are routinely used to estimate consumer trophic positions (TPs). This method is very sensitive to the chosen isotopic baseline, which should incorporate all temporal isotopic variability occurring in the base of the food web sustaining the consumers. However, there is still no consensus on the different methods to represent time intervals for isotopic assimilation. It is uncertain if researchers should compute a single baseline obtained by averaging δ15N source values across all time periods, multiple baselines based on δ15N source values collected concomitantly with consumers, or consider a time lag between sources and consumers. Aiming to provide empirical evidence to help select the best option, we designed 4 methods using different temporal lags between consumers and producers based on a 9 yr time series of carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes in an estuary. The 4 tested baseline methods considered the δ15N average of producers sampled in all years (Global); the same season as consumers (Concomitantly); the season before the collection of consumers (Delayed); and the previous season as well as the same season of consumer sampling (Interpolation). Comparison of results with an expected model (based on stomach content data) showed that the Delayed method is the most appropriate. We conclude that time lags in the incorporation of stable isotope values between sources and consumers must be considered in baseline δ15N calculations to improve TP estimates and provide more reliable modeling results. Additionally, we provide other recommendations to improve sampling designs when using stable isotopes in TP estimations.

KEY WORDS: Aquatic ecology · Isotopic baseline · Isotopic turnover · Nitrogen isotope · Stable isotopes · Trophic level

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Cite this article as: Possamai B, Hoeinghaus DJ, Garcia AM (2021) Shifting baselines: Integrating ecological and isotopic time lags improves trophic position estimates in aquatic consumers. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 666:19-30.

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