Polar Biology

, Volume 31, Issue 6, pp 725–733 | Cite as

Can stable isotope (δ13C and δ15N) measurements of little auk (Alle alle) adults and chicks be used to track changes in high-Arctic marine foodwebs?

  • Ann M. A. HardingEmail author
  • Keith A. Hobson
  • Wojciech Walkusz
  • Kasia Dmoch
  • Nina J. Karnovsky
  • Thomas I. Van Pelt
  • Jan T. Lifjeld
Original Paper


The little auk (Alle alle), a small and abundant planktivorous seabird that breeds in the high Arctic, has the potential to be used as a monitor of the composition and abundance of lower trophic-level zooplankton. We investigated age- and sex-related sources of variation in diet and stable isotope (δ13C and δ15N) values of little auks breeding in Spitsbergen during the summer of 2002 to evaluate this possibility. Stable isotope profiles of both adult and chick blood changed over the breeding season, with blood δ15N values increasing and δ13C values decreasing. This could represent a switch to higher trophic-level prey derived from more pelagic sources. However, while chick blood δ13C values followed those values in their meals, this was not the case for blood δ15N values, suggesting additional physiological mechanisms influencing blood δ15N values in growing chicks. Chicks had consistently lower δ15N values than their parents, which may indicate they were being fed on lower trophic-level prey items or may alternatively reflect complexities in chick blood δ15N values through the growth period. These results have several important implications for use of stable isotope analysis as a tool to detect changes in seabird diet and availability of lower trophic-level prey in high-Arctic marine environments. Until physiological aspects of stable isotope discrimination are well understood, we caution against using chicks of this seabird as any form of isotopic monitor.


Prey Item Stable Isotope Analysis Late Incubation Chick Diet Tufted Puffin 
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 Magda Owczarek for her long hours helping with fieldwork; the captains and crews of the vessels Lance, Oceania and Norbjørn for transport; Jan Marcin Węsławski and Lech Stempniewicz for advice, support and collaboration; and John Piatt for his support throughout. Special thanks to Tomasz Moczadłowski (Polish Polar Station) for logistical help, and we are grateful to Lucjan Nowosielski (Station leader) and all our friends at the Polish Polar Station for hospitality and support. Blanca Mora Alvarez assisted with preparation of samples for stable isotope measurements. M. Stocki conducted analyses at the Department of Soil Sciences, University of Saskatchewan. Many thanks to three anonymous referees for their thoughtful reviews. This study was funded by the Institute of Geophysics (Polish Academy of Sciences), the Atlantic Seabird Group, the Gino Watkins Memorial Fund, the Augustine Courtauld Trust, and Alaska Pacific University, and was supported by USGS-Alaska Science Center. All birds were handled under the permission of the Norwegian Animal Research Authority and the Governor of Svalbard.


  1. Abraham CL, Sydeman WJ (2006) Prey-switching by Cassin’s auklet Ptychoramphus aleuticus reveals seasonal climate-related cycles of Euphausia pacifica and Thusanoessa spinifera. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 313:271–283CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bearhop S, Teece MA, Waldron S, Furness FW (2000) The influence of uric acid upon δ13C and δ15N values of avian blood: implications for trophic studies. Auk 117:504–507CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Beaugrand G, Reid PC, Ibañez F, Lindley JA, Edwards M (2002) Reorganization of North Atlantic marine copepod biodiversity and climate. Science 296:1692–1694PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bradstreet MSW (1982) Pelagic feeding ecology of dovekies Alle alle in Lancaster Sound and Western Baffin Bay. Arctic 35:126–140Google Scholar
  5. Carleton SA, Martínez del Rio C (2005) The effect of cold-induced increased metabolic rate on the rate of 13C and 15N incorporation in house sparrows (Passer domesticus). Oecologia 144:226–232PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Cherel Y, Hobson KA, Hassani S (2005) Isotopic discrimination between food and blood and feathers of captive penguins: implications for dietary studies in the wild. Physiol Biochem Zool 78:106–115PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Clarke A, Prince PA (1980) Chemical composition and calorific value of food fed to mollymauk chicks Diomedea melanophris and D. chrysostoma at Bird Island, South Georgia. Ibis 122:488–494CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Curry R, Mauritzen C (2005) Dilution of the northern North Atlantic Ocean in recent decades. Science 308:1772–1774PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Davoren GH, Burger AE (1999) Differences in prey selection and behaviour during self-feeding and chick provisioning in rhinoceros auklets. Anim Behav 58:853–863PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Emlen JM (1966) The role of time and energy in food preference. Am Nat 100:611–617CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Falk K, Pedersen CE, Kampp K (2000) Measurements of diving depths in dovekies (Alle alle). Auk 117:522–525CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Forero MG, Hobson KA, Bortolotti GR, Donazar JA, Bertellotti M, Blanco G (2002a) Food resource utilization by the Magellanic penguin evaluated through stable-isotope analysis: segregation by sex and age and influence on offspring quality. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 234:289–299CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Forero MG, Tella JL, Hobson KA, Bertellotti M, Glanco G (2002b) Conspecific food competition explains variability in colony size: a test in Magellanic penguins. Ecology 83:3466–3475Google Scholar
  14. Frederiksen M, Edwards M, Richardson AJ, Halliday C, Wanless S (2006) From plankton to top-predators: bottom-up control of a marine food web across four trophic levels. J Anim Ecol 75:1259–1268PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Fridolfsson A-K, Ellegren H (1999) A simple and universal method for molecular sexing of non-ratite birds. J Avian Biol 30:116–121CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Gabrielsen GW, Taylor JRE, Konarzewski M, Mehlum F (1991) Field and laboratory metabolism and thermoregulation in dovekies (Alle alle). Auk 108:71–78Google Scholar
  17. González-Solís J, Croxall P, Wood AG (2000) Sexual dimorphism and sexual segregation in foraging strategies of northern giant petrels Macronectes halli during incubation. Oikos 90:390–398CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Harding AMA, Van Pelt TI, Lifjeld JT, Mehlum F (2004) Sex differences in little auk Alle alle parental care: transition from biparental to paternal-only care. Ibis 146:642–651CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Hobson KA (1993) Trophic relationships among high Arctic seabirds: insights from tissue-dependent stable-isotope models. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 95:7–18Google Scholar
  20. Hobson KA, Piatt JF, Pitocchelli J (1994) Using stable isotopes to determine seabird trophic relationships. J Anim Ecol 63:786–798CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Hobson KA, Gilchrist G, Falk K (2002) Isotopic investigations of seabirds of the North Water Polynya: contrasting trophic relationships between the eastern and western sectors. Condor 104:1–11CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Hodum PJ, Hobson KA (2000) Trophic relationships among Antarctic fulmarine petrels: insights into dietary overlap and chick provisioning strategies inferred from stable-isotope analysis. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 198:273–281CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Jakubas D, Wojczulanis K (2007) Predicting the sex of dovekies by discriminate analysis. Waterbirds 30:92–96CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Karnovsky NJ, Hunt GL (2002) Estimation of carbon flux to dovekie (Alle alle) in the North Water. Deep Sea Res 49:5117–5130CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Karnovsky NJ, Kwasniewski S, Węslawski JM, Walkusz W, Beszczynska-Mőller A (2003) Foraging behaviour of little auks in a heterogeneous environment. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 253:289–303CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Kline TC (1997) Confirming forage fish food web dependencies in the Prince William Sound ecosystem. In: Forage fishes in marine ecosystems. Proceedings of the international symposium on the role of forage fish fishes in marine ecosystems, Alaska Sea Grant College Program report no. 97-01, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, pp 257–269Google Scholar
  27. Konarzewski M, Taylor JRE, Gabrielsen GW (1993) Chick energy requirements and adult energy expenditures of dovekies (Alle alle). Auk 110:343–353Google Scholar
  28. McArthur RH, Pianka ER (1966) Optimal use of a patchy environment. Am Nat 100:603–609CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. McConnaughey T, McRoy CP (1979) Food-web structure and the fractionation of carbon isotopes in the Bering Sea. Mar Biol 53:257–262CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Orians GH, Pearson NE (1979) On the theory of central place foraging. In: Horn DJ, Mitchell RD, Stairs GR (eds) Analysis of ecological systems. Ohio State University Press, Columbus, pp 154–177Google Scholar
  31. Pedersen CE, Falk K (2001) Chick diet of dovekies Alle alle in northwest Greenland. Polar Biol 24:53–58CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Quillfeldt P, McGill RAR, Furness RW (2005) Diet and foraging areas of Southern Ocean seabirds and their prey inferred from stable isotopes: review and case study of Wilson’s storm-petrel. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 295:295–304CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Richardson AJ, Schoeman DS (2004) Climate impact on plankton ecosystems in the northeast Atlantic. Science 305:1609–1612PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Roby DD, Brinck KL, Nettleship DN (1981) Measurements, chick meals and breeding distribution of dovekies (Alle alle) in northwest Greenland. Arctic 34:241–248Google Scholar
  35. Scott CL, Kwasniewski S, Falk-Petersen S, Sargent JR (2000) Lipids and life strategies of Calanus finmarchicus, Calanus glacialis and Calanus hyperboreus in late autumn, Kongsfjorden, Svalbard. Polar Biol 23:510–516CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Selander RK (1972) Sexual selection and dimorphism in birds. In: Campbell B (ed) Sexual selection and the descent of man. Heinemann, Chicago, pp 180–230Google Scholar
  37. Seutin G, White BN, Boag PT (1991) Preservation of avian blood and tissue samples for DNA analyses. Can J Zool 69:82–90CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Stempniewicz L (1981) Breeding biology of the little auk (Plautus alle) in the Hornsund region, SW Spitsbergen. Acta Ornithol 18:141–165Google Scholar
  39. Stempniewicz L (2001) Alle alle little auk. The journal of the birds of the western Palearctic, BWP update, vol 3. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 175–201Google Scholar
  40. Taylor JRW (1994) Changes in body mass and body reserves of breeding little auks (Alle alle L.). Pol Polar Res 15:147–168Google Scholar
  41. Velando A, Freire J (1999) Intercolony and seasonal differences in the breeding diet of European Shags on the Galician Coast (NW Spain). Mar Ecol Prog Ser 188:225–236CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Weimerskirch H, Cherel Y, Cuenot-Challiet F, Ridoux V (1997) Alternate foraging strategies and resource allocation by male and female wandering albatrosses. Ecology 78:2051–2063CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Węslawski JM, Kwasniewski S, Stempniewicz L, Blachowiak-Samolyk K (2006) Biodiversity and energy transfer to top trophic levels in two contrasting Arctic fjords. Pol Polar Res 27(3):259–278Google Scholar
  44. Williams CT, Buck CK, Sears J, Kitaysky AS (2007) Effects of nutritional restriction on nitrogen and carbon stable isotopes in growing seabirds. Oecologia 153:11–18PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Wilson LJ, Daunt F, Wanless S (2004) Self-feeding and chick-provisioning diet differ in the common guillemot Uria aalge. Ardea 92:197–208Google Scholar
  46. Wojczulanis K, Jakubas D, Walkusz W, Wennerberg L (2006) Differences in food delivered to chicks by males and females of little auks (Alle alle) on South Spitsbergen. J Ornithol 147:543–548CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Zar JH (1996) Biostatistical analysis. Prentice-Hall, Inc., New JerseyGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ann M. A. Harding
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Keith A. Hobson
    • 3
  • Wojciech Walkusz
    • 4
  • Kasia Dmoch
    • 4
  • Nina J. Karnovsky
    • 5
  • Thomas I. Van Pelt
    • 1
    • 6
  • Jan T. Lifjeld
    • 7
  1. 1.Polish Polar Station in HornsundInstitute of Geophysics, Polish Academy of SciencesSpitsbergenNorway
  2. 2.Environmental Science DepartmentAlaska Pacific UniversityAnchorageUSA
  3. 3.Environment CanadaSaskatoonCanada
  4. 4.Institute of Oceanology, Polish Academy of SciencesSopotPoland
  5. 5.Department of BiologyPomona CollegeClaremontUSA
  6. 6.Transboundary Ecologic LLCAnchorageUSA
  7. 7.National History Museums and Botanical GardenUniversity of OsloOsloNorway

Personalised recommendations