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Trophic Hierarchies Illuminated via Amino Acid Isotopic Analysis

Steffan, Shawn A., Chikaraishi, Yoshito, Horton, David R., Ohkouchi, Naohiko, Singleton, Merritt E., Miliczky, Eugene, Hogg, David B., Jones, Vincent P., Pond, David William
PloS one 2013 v.8 no.9
accuracy, amino acids, arthropods, biological control, biomass, ecological function, isotope labeling, isotopes, natural enemies, pests, population dynamics, predation, predators, proteins
Food web ecologists have long sought to characterize the trophic niches of animals using stable isotopic analysis. However, distilling trophic position from isotopic composition has been difficult, largely because of the variability associated with trophic discrimination factors (inter-trophic isotopic fractionation and routing). We circumvented much of this variability using compound-specific isotopic analysis (CSIA). We examined the 15 N signatures of amino acids extracted from organisms reared in pure culture at four discrete trophic levels, across two model communities. We calculated the degree of enrichment at each trophic level and found there was a consistent trophic discrimination factor (~7.6‰). The constancy of the CSIA-derived discrimination factor permitted unprecedented accuracy in the measurement of animal trophic position. Conversely, trophic position estimates generated via bulk- 15 N analysis significantly underestimated trophic position, particularly among higher-order consumers. We then examined the trophic hierarchy of a free-roaming arthropod community, revealing the highest trophic position (5.07) and longest food chain ever reported using CSIA. High accuracy in trophic position estimation brings trophic function into sharper focus, providing greater resolution to the analysis of food webs.