Main content area

Chernobyl as a population sink for barn swallows: tracking dispersal using stable‐isotope profiles

Møller, A. P., Hobson, K. A., Mousseau, T. A., Peklo, A. M.
Ecological applications 2006 v.16 no.5 pp. 1696-1705
Hirundo rustica, adults, birds, breeding, carbon, disasters, feathers, females, males, molting, nitrogen, radioactivity, reproductive performance, spatial variation, stable isotopes, Ukraine
Stable‐isotope profiles of feathers can reveal the location or habitat used by individual birds during the molting period. Heterogeneity in isotope profiles will reflect heterogeneity in molt locations, but also heterogeneity in breeding locations, because spatial heterogeneity in molt locations will be congruent with spatial heterogeneity in breeding locations in species with high connectivity between breeding and molting sites. We used information on the congruence of spatial heterogeneity in molt and breeding location to study population processes in Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) from a region near Chernobyl, Ukraine, that has been radioactively contaminated since 1986; from an uncontaminated control region near Kanev, Ukraine; and from a sample of pre‐1986 museum specimens used to investigate patterns prior to the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, from both regions. Previous studies have revealed severe reductions in Barn Swallow reproductive performance and adult survival in the Chernobyl region, implying that the population is a sink and unable to sustain itself. Female Barn Swallows are known to disperse farther from their natal site than males, implying that female stable‐isotope profiles should tend to be more variable than profiles of males. However, if the Barn Swallows breeding at Chernobyl are not self‐sustaining, we would expect males there also to originate from a larger area than males from the control region. We found evidence that the sample of adult Barn Swallows from the Chernobyl region was more isotopically heterogeneous than the control sample, as evidenced from a significant correlation between feather δ¹³C and δ¹⁵N values in the control region, but not in the Chernobyl region. Furthermore, we found a significant difference in feather δ¹⁵N values between regions and periods (before and after 1986). When we compared the variances in δ¹³C values of feathers, we found that variances in both sexes from post‐1986 samples from Chernobyl were significantly larger than variances for feather samples from the control region, and than variances for historical samples from both regions. These findings suggest that stable‐isotope measurements can provide information about population processes following environmental perturbations.