Stable isotopes can be used to elucidate ecological relationships in community and trophic studies. Findings are calibrated against baselines, e.g. from a producer or primary consumer, assumed to act as a reference to the isotopic context created by spatio-temporal attributes such as geography, climate, nutrient, and energy sources. The ability of an organism to accurately represent a community base depends on how, and over what time-scale, it assimilates ambient materials. Freshwater mussels have served as references for trophic studies of freshwater communities and as indicators of change in nutrient pollution load or source. Their suitability as reference animals has not yet been fully explored, however. We conducted a series of studies examining the suitability of freshwater mussels as isotopic baselines, using their ability to reflect variation in ambient nutrient loads as a case scenario. (1) We analyzed bivalve foot tissue ??15N and ??13C from 22 stream reaches in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, USA to show that compositions varied substantially among locations. Site mean bivalve ??13C values correlated with site ambient particulate organic matter (POM) ??13C values, and site mean bivalve ??15N values correlated with site ambient water dissolved ??15N-NO3 values. (2) Similarity of results among sample types demonstrated that the minimally invasive hemolymph sample is a suitable substitute for foot tissue in ??15N analyses, and that small sample sizes generate means representative of a larger population. Both findings can help minimize the impact of sampling on imperiled freshwater mussel populations. (3) In a bivalve transplantation study we showed that hemolymph ??15N compositions responded to a shift in ambient dissolved ??15N-NO3, although slowly. The tissue turnover time for bivalve hemolymph was 113 days. We conclude that bivalves serve best as biomonitors of chronic, rather than acute, fluctuations in stream nutrient loads, and provide initial evidence of their suitability as time-integrated isotopic baselines for community studies. ?? 2006 Springer-Verlag.
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Temporal and spatial variability in stable isotope compositions of a freshwater mussel: Implications for biomonitoring and ecological studies