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Assigning birds to geographic origin using feather hydrogen isotope ratios (δ2H): importance of year, age, and habitat

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In North America, gradients in the ratio of stable hydrogen isotopes in amount-weighted, growing-season mean precipitation (2H:1H; depicted as δ2Hp) form a largely latitude-sensitive isoscape that can be used to estimate the geographical origin of animals. Feathers are metabolically inert following growth and δ2Hf values retain information on geographical origins. However, there are important assumptions underlying this approach that can only be tested using birds of known origin. Here, we investigated sources of variation in δ2Hf measurements from Ovenbirds (Seiurus aurocapilla (L., 1766)) associated with year, age class, feather type, season, and habitat type in New Brunswick, Canada. The observed δ2Hf generally followed that predicted from the Global Network of Isotopes in Precipitation database. However, we found a strong year × age interaction on δ2Hf. Season, habitat type, and feather type explained only a small portion of the overall variation in δ2Hf. These results show the advantages of using annual δ2Hp isoscapes and age-specific corrections when converting δ2Hp to δ2Hf. We submit that the interaction effect can be modeled by accounting for interannual variation in the amount of precipitation during the breeding season. These procedures will allow for more precise estimates of the geographical origin of individual birds, especially for studies conducted near oceanic coasts, which are subject to significant annual variations in growing season δ2Hp.
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Keywords: Ovenbird; Seiurus aurocapilla; assignation géographique; geographic assignment; isoscapes; isotopes stables; paruline couronnée; paysages isotopiques; stable isotopes

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB T6G 2E9, Canada. 2: Environment Canada, 11 Innovation Boulevard, Saskatoon, SK S7N 3H5, Canada. 3: Département de biologie, Université de Moncton, Moncton, NB E1A 3E9, Canada.

Publication date: 2012-06-10

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  • Published since 1929, this monthly journal reports on primary research contributed by respected international scientists in the broad field of zoology, including behaviour, biochemistry and physiology, developmental biology, ecology, genetics, morphology and ultrastructure, parasitology and pathology, and systematics and evolution. It also invites experts to submit review articles on topics of current interest.
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