, Volume 144, Issue 4, pp 607–617 | Cite as

A test of geographic assignment using isotope tracers in feathers of known origin

  • Michael B. Wunder
  • Cynthia L. Kester
  • Fritz L. Knopf
  • Robert O. Rye
Stable Isotopes Issue


We used feathers of known origin collected from across the breeding range of a migratory shorebird to test the use of isotope tracers for assigning breeding origins. We analyzed δD, δ13C, and δ15N in feathers from 75 mountain plover (Charadrius montanus) chicks sampled in 2001 and from 119 chicks sampled in 2002. We estimated parameters for continuous-response inverse regression models and for discrete-response Bayesian probability models from data for each year independently. We evaluated model predictions with both the training data and by using the alternate year as an independent test dataset. Our results provide weak support for modeling latitude and isotope values as monotonic functions of one another, especially when data are pooled over known sources of variation such as sample year or location. We were unable to make even qualitative statements, such as north versus south, about the likely origin of birds using both δD and δ13C in inverse regression models; results were no better than random assignment. Probability models provided better results and a more natural framework for the problem. Correct assignment rates were highest when considering all three isotopes in the probability framework, but the use of even a single isotope was better than random assignment. The method appears relatively robust to temporal effects and is most sensitive to the isotope discrimination gradients over which samples are taken. We offer that the problem of using isotope tracers to infer geographic origin is best framed as one of assignment, rather than prediction.


Assignment test Feathers Migration Stable isotopes 


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Michael B. Wunder
    • 1
  • Cynthia L. Kester
    • 2
  • Fritz L. Knopf
    • 3
  • Robert O. Rye
    • 2
  1. 1.Graduate Degree Program in Ecology, Department of Fishery and Wildlife BiologyColorado State UniversityFort CollinsUSA
  2. 2.U.S. Geological Survey, Stable Isotope LabDenverUSA
  3. 3.U.S. Geological SurveyFort CollinsUSA

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