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Arctic herbivore diet can be inferred from stable carbon and nitrogen isotopes in C3 plants, faeces, and wool

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The use of stable isotopes in diet analysis usually relies on the different photosynthetic pathways of C3 and C4 plants, and the resulting difference in carbon isotope signature. In the Arctic, however, plant species are exclusively C3, and carbon isotopes alone are therefore not suitable for studying arctic herbivore diets. In this study, we examined the potential of both stable carbon and nitrogen isotopes to reconstruct the diet of an arctic herbivore, here the muskox (Ovibos moschatus (Zimmermann, 1780)), in northeast Greenland. The isotope composition of plant communities and functional plant groups was compared with those of muskox faeces and shed wool, as this is a noninvasive approach to obtain dietary information on different temporal scales. Plants with different root mycorrhizal status were found to have different δ15N values, whereas differences in δ13C, as expected, were less distinct. As a result, our examination mainly relied on stable nitrogen isotopes. The interpretation of stable isotopes from faeces was difficult because of the large uncertainty in diet–faeces fractionation, whereas isotope signatures from wool suggested that the muskox summer diet consists of around 80% graminoids and up to 20% willows. In conclusion, the diet composition of an arctic herbivore can indeed be inferred from stable isotopes in arctic areas, despite the lack of C4 plants.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: 1: Department of Bioscience, Aarhus University, Frederiksborgvej 399, DK-4000, Roskilde, Denmark; Institute of Biology, University of Southern Denmark, Campusvej 55, DK-5230 Odense M, Denmark. 2: Institute of Biology, University of Southern Denmark, Campusvej 55, DK-5230 Odense M, Denmark. 3: Department of Bioscience, Aarhus University, Frederiksborgvej 399, DK-4000 Roskilde, Denmark; Greenland Climate Research Centre, Greenland Institute for Natural Resources, Post box 570, 3900 Nuuk, Greenland. 4: Department of Biology, University of Copenhagen, Øster Farimagsgade 2D, DK-1353 Copenhagen, Denmark.

Publication date: 2011-10-16

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