Environmental correlates of large-scale spatial variation in the δ13C of marine animals

Carolyn Barnes, Simon Jennings, Jon T. Barry

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

70 Citations (Scopus)


Carbon stable isotopes can be used to trace the sources of energy supporting food chains and to estimate the contribution of different sources to a consumer's diet. However, the d13C signature of a consumer is not sufficient to infer source without an appropriate isotopic baseline, because there is no way to determine if differences in consumer d13C reflect source changes or baseline variation. Describing isotopic baselines is a considerable challenge when applying stable isotope techniques at large spatial scales and/or to interconnected food chains in open marine environments. One approach is to use filter-feeding consumers to integrate the high frequency and small-scale variation in the isotopic signature of phytoplankton and provide a surrogate baseline, but it can be difficult to sample a single consumer species at large spatial scales owing to rarity and/or discontinuous distribution. Here, we use the isotopic signature of a widely distributed filter-feeder (the queen scallop Aequipecten opercularis) in the north-eastern Atlantic to develop a model linking base d13C to environmental variables. Remarkably, a single variable model based on bottom temperature has good predictive power and predicts scallop d13C with mean error of only 0.6‰ (3%). When the model was used to predict an isotopic baseline in parts of the overall study region where scallop were not consistently sampled, the model accounted for 76% and 79% of the large-scale spatial variability (101-104 km) of the d13C of two fish species (dab Limanda limanda and whiting Merlangus merlangius) and 44% of the d13C variability in a mixed fish community. The results show that source studies would be significantly biased if a single baseline were applied to food webs at larger scales. Further, when baseline d13C cannot be directly measured, a calculated baseline value can eliminate a large proportion of the unexplained variation in d13C at higher trophic levels.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)368-374
Number of pages7
JournalEstuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2009

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