The magnitude of spatial and temporal variation in δ15N and δ13C differs between taxonomic groups: Implications for food web studies

Document Type

Journal Article




Faculty of Health, Engineering and Science


School of Natural Sciences/Centre for Marine Ecosystems Research




This article was originally published as: Hyndes, G. A., Hanson, C. E., & Vanderklift, M. A. (2013). The magnitude of spatial and temporal variation in δ15N and δ13C differs between taxonomic groups: Implications to food web studies. Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science, 119, 176-187. Original article available here


Understanding variability in stable isotope abundance is essential for effective hypothesis testing and evaluating food sources, trophic levels and food web structure. The magnitude and sources of variability are likely to differ among taxonomic and functional groups. We aimed to quantify variability of δ13C and δ15N for 16 species representing seven distinct taxonomic groups of benthic invertebrates and autotrophs in a marine ecosystem. We quantified the magnitude of variability among individuals or shoots separated by metres, among eight sites separated by kilometres, and between two survey occasions separated by months. δ13C varied by as much as 7‰ for primary producers, 4‰ for consumers, while δ15N varied by as much as 9‰ and 2‰ respectively. Variation in δ15N of seagrass was largely accounted for by differences among sites, while variation in δ13C was mainly attributable to shoots collected a few metres apart. Compared to seagrasses, variation in macroalgae was mainly explained by differences between the two survey occasions for δ15N and among individuals collected a few metres apart for δ13C. Variation was generally lower for consumers and typically explained by differences among individuals for δ15N but displayed inconsistent patterns for δ13C. Dual isotope Bayesian mixing models showed that the potential contributions of food sources for herbivorous consumers varied among sites and between survey occasions, and also that there was high variability or uncertainty in the contributions of sources within sites. The relative consistency in the main sources of variation among broad taxonomic groups in autotrophs suggests that aspects of physiology that are phylogenetically conserved might be important influences on variation in natural abundances of stable isotopes. In comparison, the sources of variability were less consistent within and among broad consumer groups, suggesting complex interactions between consumers and their food sources.