Tracing the pathways of Neotropical migratory shorebirds using stable isotopes: A pilot study

Isotopes in Environmental and Health Studies
By: , and 



We evaluated the potential use of stable isotopes to establish linkages between the wintering grounds and the breeding grounds of the Pectoral Sandpiper (Calidris melanotos), the White-rumped Sandpiper (Calidris fuscicollis), the Baird's Sandpiper (Calidris bairdii), and other Neotropical migratory shorebird species (e.g., Tringa spp.). These species molt their flight feathers on the wintering grounds and hence their flight feathers carry chemical signatures that are characteristic of their winter habitat. The objective of our pilot study was to assess the feasibility of identifying the winter origin of individual birds by: (1) collecting shorebird flight feathers from several widely separated Argentine sites and analyzing these for a suite of stable isotopes; and (2) analyzing the deuterium and 18O isotope data that were available from precipitation measurement stations in Argentina. Isotopic ratios (δ13C, δ15N and δ34S) of flight feathers were significantly different among three widely separated sites in Argentina during January 2001. In terms of relative importance in separating the sites, δ34S was most important, followed by δ15N, and then δ13C. In the complete discriminant analysis, the classification function correctly predicted group membership in 85% of the cases (jackknifed classification matrix). In a stepwise analysis δ13C was dropped from the solution, and site membership was correctly predicted in 92% of cases (jackknifed matrix). Analysis of precipitation data showed that both δD and δ18O were significantly related to both latitude and longitude on a countrywide scale (p < 0.001). Other variables, month, altitude, explained little additional variation in these isotope ratios. Several issues were identified that will likely constrain the degree of accuracy one can expect in predicting the geographic origin of birds from Argentina. There was unexplained variation in isotope ratios within and among the different wing feathers from individual birds. Such variation may indicate that birds are not faithful to a local site during their winter stay in Argentina. There was significant interannual variation in the δD and δ18O of precipitation. Hence, specific locations may not have a constant signature for some isotopes. Moreover, the fractionation that occurs in wetlands due to evaporation significantly skews local δD and δ18O values, which may undermine the strong large-scale gradients seen in the precipitation data. We are continuing the research with universities in Argentina with a focus on expanding the breadth of feather collection and attempting to resolve the identified issues.

Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Tracing the pathways of Neotropical migratory shorebirds using stable isotopes: A pilot study
Series title Isotopes in Environmental and Health Studies
DOI 10.1080/1025601031000108660
Volume 39
Issue 3
Year Published 2003
Language English
Publisher Taylor & Francis
Contributing office(s) Fort Collins Science Center
Description 9 p.
First page 169
Last page 177
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