, Volume 171, Issue 2, pp 591–600 | Cite as

Conservation through connectivity: can isotopic gradients in Africa reveal winter quarters of a migratory bird?

  • Thomas S. Reichlin
  • Keith A. Hobson
  • Steven L. Van Wilgenburg
  • Michael Schaub
  • Leonard I. Wassenaar
  • Manuel Martín-Vivaldi
  • Raphaël Arlettaz
  • Lukas JenniEmail author
Conservation ecology - Original research


Conservation of migratory wildlife requires knowledge of migratory connectivity between breeding and non-breeding locations. Stable isotopes in combination with geographical isotopic patterns (isoscapes) can provide inferences about migratory connectivity. This study examines whether such an approach can be used to infer wintering areas in sub-Saharan Africa, where we lack such knowledge for many species, but where this method has not been used widely. We measured δ 2H, δ 13C and δ 15N in winter-grown feathers of a breeding Swiss and Spanish population of European hoopoe Upupa epops—a typical Palaearctic-Afrotropical migrant. δ 2H values predicted that ~70 % of the hoopoes spent the non-breeding season in the western portion of their potential winter range. This was corroborated by a shallow east–west gradient in feather-δ 2H values of museum specimens from known African origin across the potential winter range and by the recovery of Swiss hoopoes marked with geolocators. Hoopoes categorized as from eastern versus western regions of the wintering range were further delineated spatially using feather δ 13C and δ 15N. δ 15N showed no trend, whereas adults were more enriched in 13C in the western portion of the range, with eastern adults being in addition more depleted in 13C than eastern juveniles. This suggests that eastern juveniles may have occupied more xeric habitats than sympatric adults. We demonstrated that stable isotopes, especially δ 2H, could only very roughly delineate the winter distribution of a trans-Saharan Palaearctic migrant restricted primarily to the Sahelian and savanna belt south of the Sahara. Further refinements of precipitation isoscapes for Africa as well the development of isoscapes for δ 13C and δ 15N may improve assignment of this and other migrants.


Carbon-13 Deuterium Migratory connectivity Nitrogen-15 Stable isotope 



We thank the Janggen-Pöhn Stiftung and the Bern University Research Foundation for financial support (recipient T. S. R.). Many thanks go to M. Benjamin, X. Mora Alvarez, Geoff Koehler and other staff members at Environment Canada, Saskatoon, for support in the laboratory, to P. Mosimann-Kampe, F. Leippert, and M. Schaad who helped catch birds in Switzerland, and to J.J. Soler and J. M. Peralta who helped catch Spanish birds. Thanks go to C. Still, G. Bowen, J. West and R. Powell for their helpful input for data analyses and manuscript preparation. We thank R. Prŷs-Jones and M. Adams of the Natural History Museum at Tring (UK) for letting us access their collection, J. Cuisin and J.-F. Voisin of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris (F) and R. Winkler of the Natural History Museum in Basel (CH) for providing us with hoopoe feather samples. We are thankful to F. Abadi for statistical advice, J. Guélat for help with GIS, S. Oppel and an anonymous reviewer for helpful comments.

Supplementary material

442_2012_2418_MOESM1_ESM.doc (1005 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOC 1005 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Thomas S. Reichlin
    • 1
    • 2
  • Keith A. Hobson
    • 3
  • Steven L. Van Wilgenburg
    • 3
  • Michael Schaub
    • 1
    • 2
  • Leonard I. Wassenaar
    • 3
  • Manuel Martín-Vivaldi
    • 4
  • Raphaël Arlettaz
    • 1
    • 2
  • Lukas Jenni
    • 1
    Email author
  1. 1.Swiss Ornithological InstituteSempachSwitzerland
  2. 2.Division of Conservation Biology, Institute of Ecology and EvolutionUniversity of BernBernSwitzerland
  3. 3.Environment CanadaSaskatoonCanada
  4. 4.Departamento de Biologia Animal, Facultad de CienciasUniversidad de GranadaGranadaSpain

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