Marine Biology

, Volume 149, Issue 4, pp 953–960 | Cite as

Leatherback turtles as oceanographic indicators: stable isotope analyses reveal a trophic dichotomy between ocean basins

  • Bryan P. Wallace
  • Jeffrey A. Seminoff
  • Susan S. Kilham
  • James R. Spotila
  • Peter H. Dutton
Research Article


Oceanographic sampling is often limited to local and temporally concise assessments of complex, transient, and widespread phenomena. However, long-lived, migratory pelagic vertebrates such as leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea, Vandelli 1761) can provide important integrated information about broad-scale oceanographic processes. Therefore, the present study analyzed stable carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios (δ13C and δ15N) of egg yolk and red blood cells from nesting leatherback populations from Costa Rica in the eastern Pacific in 2003–2004 and 2004–2005 and from St. Croix in the North Atlantic in 2004 and 2005 to establish differences between nutrient sourcing and its influence on higher trophic level consumers in both ocean basins. Whereas δ13C signatures were similar between Costa Rica (−19.1±0.7‰) and St. Croix (−19.4±1.0‰) leatherbacks, reflecting the pelagic foraging strategy of the species, Costa Rica leatherback δ15N signatures (15.4±1.8‰) were significantly enriched relative to St. Croix leatherback δ15N signatures (9.8±1.5‰). This δ15N difference likely reflects inter-basin differences in nitrogen cycling regimes and their influence on primary productivity being transferred through several trophic levels. Thus, high-order marine consumer movements, habitat preferences, and stable isotope signatures can be combined with ocean sampling to elucidate interactions between oceanographic processes and marine megafauna.


Denitrification Eastern Pacific Stable Isotope Signature Nest Season Loggerhead Turtle 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



We thank the field biologists and Earthwatch volunteers at both Playa Grande and St. Croix for assistance in sample collection and preparation, especially F. Paladino, J. Alexander, and S. Garner. Bruce Deck assisted with the mass spectophotometry. The Park Rangers at Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas, Costa Rica, and Park Director R. Piedra performed a critical role in facilitating this research while protecting nesting leatherbacks and their eggs and hatchlings. BPW was supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. Financial support for this project was provided by NOAA-Fisheries Southwest Fisheries Science Center, EARTHWATCH Center for Field Studies, the Betz Chair of Environmental Science at Drexel University, and The Leatherback Trust. This study was conducted under all appropriate institutional and country research permits, and samples were transported under appropriate Costa Rica Ministerio del Ambiente y Energía (Ministry of the Environment and Energy) export and US Fish and Wildlife Service import CITES permits.

Supplementary material

227_2006_247_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (91 kb)
Supplementary material


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  • Bryan P. Wallace
    • 1
    • 3
  • Jeffrey A. Seminoff
    • 2
  • Susan S. Kilham
    • 1
  • James R. Spotila
    • 1
  • Peter H. Dutton
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Bioscience and BiotechnologyDrexel UniversityPhiladelphiaUSA
  2. 2.NOAA-National Marine Fisheries ServiceSouthwest Fisheries Science CenterLa JollaUSA
  3. 3.Duke University Center for Marine ConservationNicholas School for the Environment and Earth SciencesBeaufortUSA

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