Stable isotope analyses have revolutionized the study of migratory connectivity. However, as with all tools, their limitations must be understood in order to derive the maximum benefit of a particular application. The goal of this study was to evaluate the efficacy of stable isotopes of C, N, H, O and S for assigning known-origin feathers to the molting sites of migrant shorebird species wintering and breeding in Argentina. Specific objectives were to: 1) compare the efficacy of the technique for studying shorebird species with different migration patterns, life histories and habitat-use patterns; 2) evaluate the grouping of species with similar migration and habitat use patterns in a single analysis to potentially improve prediction accuracy; and 3) evaluate the potential gains in prediction accuracy that might be achieved from using multiple stable isotopes. The efficacy of stable isotope ratios to determine origin was found to vary with species. While one species (White-rumped Sandpiper, Calidris fuscicollis) had high levels of accuracy assigning samples to known origin (91% of samples correctly assigned), another (Collared Plover, Charadrius collaris) showed low levels of accuracy (52% of samples correctly assigned). Intra-individual variability may account for this difference in efficacy. The prediction model for three species with similar migration and habitat-use patterns performed poorly compared with the model for just one of the species (71% versus 91% of samples correctly assigned). Thus, combining multiple sympatric species may not improve model prediction accuracy. Increasing the number of stable isotopes in the analyses increased the accuracy of assigning shorebirds to their molting origin, but the best combination - involving a subset of all the isotopes analyzed - varied among species.
Additional publication details
Population variation in isotopic composition of shorebird feathers: Implications for determining molting grounds