, Volume 146, Issue 1, pp 89–97 | Cite as

Isotopic enrichment in herbivorous insects: a comparative field-based study of variation

  • Kenneth O. SpenceEmail author
  • Jay A. Rosenheim
Community Ecology


Researchers will be able to use stable isotope analysis to study community structure in an efficient way, without a need for extensive calibrations, if isotopic enrichment values are consistent, or if variation in enrichment values can be predicted. In this study, we generated an experimental data set of δ15N and δ13C enrichment means for 22 terrestrial herbivorous arthropods feeding on 18 different host plants. Mean enrichments observed across a single trophic transfer (plants to herbivores) were −0.53±0.26‰ for δ13C (range: −3.47‰ to 1.89‰) and 1.88±0.37‰ for δ15N (range: −0.20‰ to 6.59‰). The mean δ13C enrichment was significantly lower than that reported in recent literature surveys, whereas the mean δ15N enrichment was not significantly different. The experimental data set provided no support for recent hypotheses advanced to explain variation in enrichment values, including the proposed roles for consumer feeding mode, development type, and diet C:N ratio. A larger data set, formed by combining our experimental data with data from the literature, did suggest possible roles for feeding mode, nitrogen recycling, herbivore life stage, and host plant type. Our results indicate that species enrichment values are variable even in this relatively narrow defined group of organisms and that our ability to predict enrichment values of terrestrial herbivorous arthropods based on physiological, ecological, or taxonomic traits is low. The primary implications are that (1) mean enrichment may have to be measured empirically for each trophic link of interest, rather than relying on estimates from a broad survey of animal taxa and (2) the advantage of using stable isotope analysis to probe animal communities that are recalcitrant to other modes of study will be somewhat diminished as a consequence.


Arthropod Community ecology Food web Terrestrial system Trophic position 



We wish to thank UCD Student Farm and Sagehen Creek Research Station for granting permission for insect collection; P. Ward, T. Kondo, J. DeBenedictis, and the UCD Herbarium for their help with specimen identification; T. Mittler and N. Willits for technical advice; G. Langellotto for sharing unpublished data; C. Armer, J. Harmon, R. Karban, G. Langellotto, S. Scheu, and L. Yang, who provided helpful comments on the manuscript; and the three anonymous reviewers whose comments improved the revised manuscript. This work was supported by funds from USDA NRICGP grant 2001–35302–10955 to JAR. The experiment in this study was conducted in accordance with the laws of the United States of America.

Supplementary material

442_2005_170_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (96 kb)
Supplementary material


  1. Adams TS, Sterner RW (2000) The effect of dietary nitrogen content on trophic level N-15 enrichment. Limnol Oceanogr 45:601–607CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bluthgen N, Gebauer G, Fiedler K (2003) Disentangling a rainforest food web using stable isotopes: dietary diversity in a species-rich ant community. Oecologia 137:426–435PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Chapman RF (1998) The Insects, 4th edn. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  4. Cochran DG (1985) Nitrogen-excretion in cockroaches. Ann Rev Entomol 30:29–49CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Coll M, Guershon M (2002) Omnivory in terrestrial arthropods: mixing plant and prey diets. Ann Rev Entomol 47:267–297CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Davidson DW, Cook SC, Snelling RR, Chua TH (2003) Explaining the abundance of ants in lowland tropical rainforest canopies. Science 300:969–972PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Deniro MJ, Epstein S (1978) Influence of diet on the distribution of carbon isotopes in animals. Geochim Cosmochim Acta 42:495–506CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Deniro MJ, Epstein S (1981) Influence of diet on the distribution of nitrogen isotopes in animals. Geochim Cosmochim Acta 45:341–351CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Eggers T, Jones TH (2000) You are what you eat ... or are you?. Trends Ecol Evol 15:265–266PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Evans EW (1982) Feeding specialization in predatory insects—hunting and attack behavior of 2 stinkbug species (Hemiptera–Pentatomidae). Am Midl Nat 108:96–104CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Gannes LZ, Obrien DM, delRio CM (1997) Stable isotopes in animal ecology: assumptions, caveats, and a call for more laboratory experiments. Ecology 78:1271–1276Google Scholar
  12. Handley LL, Scrimgeour CM (1997) Terrestrial plant ecology and N-15 natural abundance: the present limits to interpretation for uncultivated systems with original data from a Scottish old field. Adv Ecol Res 27:133–212Google Scholar
  13. Hobson KA, Clark RG (1992) Assessing avian diets using stable isotopes 2. Factors influencing diet-tissue fractionation. Condor 94:189–197CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Hongoh Y, Ishikawa H (1997) Uric acid as a nitrogen resource for the brown planthopper, Nilaparvata lugens: studies with synthetic diets and aposymbiotic insects. Zool Sci 14:581–586CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. McCutchan JH, Lewis WM, Kendall C, McGrath CC (2003) Variation in trophic shift for stable isotope ratios of carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur. Oikos 102:378–390CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Neilson R et al. (1998) Stable isotope natural abundances of soil, plants and soil invertebrates in an upland pasture. Soil Biol Biochem 30:1773–1782CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Oelbermann K, Scheu S (2002) Stable isotope enrichment (delta N-15 and delta C-13) in a generalist predator (Pardosa lugubris, Araneae: Lycosidae): effects of prey quality. Oecologia 130:337–344CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. O’Reilly CM, Hecky RE, Cohen AS, Plisnier PD (2002) Interpreting stable isotopes in food webs: recognizing the role of time averaging at different trophic levels. Limnol Oceanogr 47:306–309Google Scholar
  19. Ostrom PH, Colunga-Garcia M, Gage SH (1997) Establishing pathways of energy flow for insect predators using stable isotope ratios: field and laboratory evidence. Oecologia 109:108–113CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Patt JM et al. (2003) Assimilation of carbon and nitrogen from pollen and nectar by a predaceous larva and its effects on growth and development. Ecol Entomol 28:717–728CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Petelle M, Haines B, Haines E (1979) Insect food preferences analyzed using C-13-C-12 ratios. Oecologia 38:159–166CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Peterson BJ, Howarth RW (1987) Sulfur, carbon, and nitrogen isotopes used to trace organic-matter flow in the salt-marsh estuaries of Sapelo Island, Georgia. Limnol Oceanogr 32:1195–1213CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Pinnegar JK, Campbell N, Polunin NVC (2001) Unusual stable isotope, fractionation patterns observed for fish host-parasite trophic relationships. J Fish Biol 59:494–503Google Scholar
  24. Ponsard S, Arditi R (2000) What can stable isotopes (delta N-15 and delta C-13) tell about the food web of soil macro-invertebrates? Ecology 81:852–864Google Scholar
  25. Post DM (2002) Using stable isotopes to estimate trophic position: models, methods, and assumptions. Ecology 83:703–718Google Scholar
  26. Potrikus CJ, Breznak JA (1977) Nitrogen-fixing Enterobacter agglomerans isolated from guts of wood-eating termites. Appl Eviron Microb 33:392–399Google Scholar
  27. Rosenheim JA (1998) Higher-order predators and the regulation of insect herbivore populations. Annu Rev Entomol 43:421–447PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Rosenheim JA, Limburg DD, Colfer RG (1999) Impact of generalist predators on a biological control agent, Chrysoperla carnea: direct observations. Ecol Appl 9:409–417CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Ruess L, Haggblom MM, Langel R, Scheu S (2004) Nitrogen isotope ratios and fatty acid composition as indicators of animal diets in belowground systems. Oecologia 139:336–346PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Sasaki T, Kawamura M, Ishikawa H (1996) Nitrogen recycling in the brown planthopper, Nilaparvata lugens: involvement of yeast-like endosymbionts in uric acid metabolism. J Insect Physiol 42:125–129CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Scheu S, Falca M (2000) The soil food web of two beech forests (Fagus sylvatica) of contrasting humus type: stable isotope analysis of a macro- and a mesofauna-dominated community. Oecologia 123:285–296CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Scrimgeour CM, Gordon SC, Handley LL, Woodford JAT (1995) Trophic levels and anomalous delta-N-15 of insects on raspberry (Rubus idaeus L). Isot Eviron Healt Sci 31:107–115CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Teeri JA, Schoeller DA (1979) Delta-C-13 values of an herbivore and the ratio of C-3 to C-4 plant carbon in its diet. Oecologia 39:197–200CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Tillberg CV, Breed MD (2004) Placing an omnivore in a complex food web: dietary contributions to adult biomass of an ant. Biotropica 36:266–272Google Scholar
  35. Vander Zanden MJ, Rasmussen JB (2001) Variation in delta N-15 and delta C-13 trophic fractionation: implications for aquatic food web studies. Limnol Oceanogr 46:2061–2066Google Scholar
  36. Vanderklift MA, Ponsard S (2003) Sources of variation in consumer-diet delta N-15 enrichment: a meta-analysis. Oecologia 136:169–182PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Webb SC, Hedges REM, Simpson SJ (1998) Diet quality influences the delta C-13 and delta N-15 of locusts and their biochemical components. J Exp Biol 201:2903–2911PubMedGoogle Scholar
  38. Wilkinson TL, Ishikawa H (2001) On the functional significance of symbiotic microorganisms in the Homoptera: a comparative study of Acyrthosiphon pisum and Nilaparvata lugens. Physiol Entomol 26:86–93CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Yoneyama T, Handley LL, Scrimgeour CM, Fisher DB, Raven JA (1997) Variations of the natural abundances of nitrogen and carbon isotopes in Triticum aestivum, with special reference to phloem and xylem exudates. New Phytol 137:205–213CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of EntomologyUniversity of CaliforniaDavisUSA

Personalised recommendations