Ecological forensics: using single point stable isotope values to infer seasonal schedules of animals after two diet switches

Jeltje Jouta*, Maurine W. Dietz, Jeroen Reneerkens, Theunis Piersma, Eldar Rakhimberdiev, Gunnar T. Hallgrímsson, Ido Pen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


Animals adjust to seasonal challenges in physical, behavioural and spatial ways. Such adjustments are commonly associated with diet changes that often can be characterised isotopically. We introduce the ‘double diet switch model’, with which the occurrence and timing of two subsequent diet switches of an individual animal can be traced with a single sample assayed for stable isotopes. We demonstrate the model for Sanderling, Calidris alba, a small shorebird that migrates from the Nearctic tundra breeding grounds to the intertidal flats of the Wadden Sea; during this migration some birds may stage in the North Atlantic areas. The ‘double diet switch model’ successfully predicted the occurrence and timing of two diet switches in 59 Sanderlings captured in the Wadden Sea in July–September. Excluding birds that likely had over-summered at North Atlantic staging areas, the model predicted that Sanderlings departed from the Arctic on 13 July (range: 9–17 July), had a staging duration of 18·6 days in the North Atlantic, and arrived in the Wadden Sea on 1 August (31 July–1 August).The estimated mean Arctic departure dates coincided with the mean hatching date, suggesting that many individuals failed to produce young or left the care to a partner. Estimated mean arrival date matched the main arrival period in the Wadden Sea obtained from observation data. In this study we did not use lipid-free tissues, which may bias model predictions. After correcting for lipid components, the estimated departure date was 11 days later and the staging duration 8·5 days shorter, while arrival date was similar. The ‘double diet switch model’ successfully identified the occurrence and timing of two subsequent diet switches. The ‘double diet switch model’ will not only apply to switches between three isotopic levels (as in the case study on Sanderling) but also to scenarios where the second switch reverses to the initial isotopic level. Due to this general applicability, the model can be adapted to a wide range of taxa and situations. Foreseeable applications include changes in habitat and food type, ontogenetic development or drastic phenotypic changes such as the metamorphosis in insects and amphibians.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)492-500
Number of pages9
JournalMethods in Ecology and Evolution
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2017

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 The Authors. Methods in Ecology and Evolution © 2016 British Ecological Society

Other keywords

  • Calidris alba
  • dietary change
  • migration
  • seasonal patterns
  • shorebirds
  • stable isotopes
  • staging duration
  • timing
  • trophic change
  • Wadden Sea


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