Population ecology - Original research


, Volume 175, Issue 4, pp 1227-1235

First online:

Unexpected hydrogen isotope variation in oceanic pelagic seabirds

  • Peggy H. OstromAffiliated withDepartment of Zoology, Michigan State University Email author 
  • , Anne E. WileyAffiliated withDepartment of Zoology, Michigan State UniversityDepartment of Vertebrate Zoology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian InstitutionDepartment of Biology, The University of Akron
  • , Sam RossmanAffiliated withDepartment of Zoology, Michigan State University
  • , Craig A. StrickerAffiliated withUS Geological Survey, Fort Collins Science Center
  • , Helen F. JamesAffiliated withDepartment of Vertebrate Zoology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution

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Hydrogen isotopes have significantly enhanced our understanding of the biogeography of migratory animals. The basis for this methodology lies in predictable, continental patterns of precipitation δD values that are often reflected in an organism’s tissues. δD variation is not expected for oceanic pelagic organisms whose dietary hydrogen (water and organic hydrogen in prey) is transferred up the food web from an isotopically homogeneous water source. We report a 142 ‰ range in the δD values of flight feathers from the Hawaiian petrel (Pterodroma sandwichensis), an oceanic pelagic North Pacific species, and inquire about the source of that variation. We show δD variation between and within four other oceanic pelagic species: Newell’s shearwater (Puffinus auricularis newellii), Black-footed albatross (Phoebastria nigripes), Laysan albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) and Buller’s shearwater (Puffinus bulleri). The similarity between muscle δD values of hatch-year Hawaiian petrels and their prey suggests that trophic fractionation does not influence δD values of muscle. We hypothesize that isotopic discrimination is associated with water loss during salt excretion through salt glands. Salt load differs between seabirds that consume isosmotic squid and crustaceans and those that feed on hyposmotic teleost fish. In support of the salt gland hypothesis, we show an inverse relationship between δD and percent teleost fish in diet for three seabird species. Our results demonstrate the utility of δD in the study of oceanic consumers, while also contributing to a better understanding of δD systematics, the basis for one of the most commonly utilized isotope tools in avian ecology.


Hydrogen isotope Seabird Salt gland Salt load Diet analysis