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Carbon isotope turnover in blood as a measure of arrival time in migratory birds using isotopically distinct environments

Oppel, Steffen, Powell, Abby N.
Journal für Ornithologie 2010 v.151 no.1 pp. 123-131
Somateria, breeding, breeding sites, carbon, diet, erythrocytes, field experimentation, habitats, migratory behavior, migratory birds, satellites, stable isotopes, Alaska
Arrival time on breeding or non-breeding areas is of interest in many ecological studies exploring fitness consequences of migratory schedules. However, in most field studies, it is difficult to precisely assess arrival time of individuals. Here, we use carbon isotope turnover in avian blood as a technique to estimate arrival time for birds switching from one habitat or environment to another. Stable carbon isotope ratios (δ¹³C) in blood assimilate to a new equilibrium following a diet switch according to an exponential decay function. This relationship can be used to determine the time a diet switch occurred if δ¹³C of both the old and new diet are known. We used published data of captive birds to validate that this approach provides reliable estimates of the time since a diet switch within 1-3 weeks after the diet switch. We then explored the utility of this technique for King Eiders (Somateria spectabilis) arriving on terrestrial breeding grounds after wintering and migration at sea. We estimated arrival time on breeding grounds in northern Alaska (95% CI) from red blood cell δ¹³C turnover to be 4-9 June. This estimate overlapped with arrival time of birds from the same study site tracked with satellite transmitters (5-12 June). Therefore, we conclude that this method provides a simple yet reliable way to assess arrival time of birds moving between isotopically distinct environments.