, Volume 191, Issue 4, pp 777–789 | Cite as

Mechanistic model predicts tissue–environment relationships and trophic shifts in animal hydrogen and oxygen isotope ratios

  • Sarah MagozziEmail author
  • Hannah B. Vander Zanden
  • Michael B. Wunder
  • Gabriel J. Bowen
Physiological ecology – original research


Statistical regression relationships between the hydrogen (H) and oxygen (O) isotope ratios (δ2H and δ18O, respectively) of animal organic tissues and those of environmental water have been widely used to reconstruct animal movements, paleoenvironments, and diet and trophic relationships. In natural populations, however, tissue–environment isotopic relationships are highly variable among animal types and geographic regions. No systematic understanding of the origin(s) of this variability currently exists, clouding the interpretation of isotope data. Here, we present and apply a model, based on fundamental metabolic relationships, to test the sensitivity of consumer tissue H and O isotope ratios, and thus tissue–environment relationships, to basic physiological, behavioral, and environmental parameters. We then simulate patterns in consumer tissue isotopic compositions under several ‘real-world’ scenarios, demonstrating that the new model can reproduce—and potentially explain—previously observed patterns in consumer tissue H isotope ratios, including between-continent differences in feather–precipitation relationships and 2H-enrichment with trophic level across species. The model makes several fundamental predictions about the organic O isotope system, which constitute hypotheses for future testing as new data are obtained. By highlighting potential sources of variability and bias in tissue–environment relationships and establishing a framework within which such effects can be predicted, these results should advance the application of H and O isotopes in ecological, paleoecological, and forensic research.


Water First-order process Sensitivity Gradient Trophic level 



This work was supported by U.S. National Science Foundation Grants EF-1241286 and DBI-1565128.

Author contribution statement

HBVZ designed the model, SM implemented it. SM performed the experiments, analyzed the data, and wrote the manuscript. GJB, MBW, and HBVZ formulated the original idea and provided advice for model development, experiments and data analysis, and paper writing.

Supplementary material

442_2019_4532_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (506 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 507 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Geology and GeophysicsUniversity of UtahSalt Lake CityUSA
  2. 2.Department of BiologyUniversity of FloridaGainesvilleUSA
  3. 3.Department of Integrative BiologyUniversity of Colorado DenverDenverUSA

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