, Volume 136, Issue 2, pp 302–308 | Cite as

Stable isotopes as indicators of altitudinal distributions and movements in an Ecuadorean hummingbird community

  • Keith A. HobsonEmail author
  • Len I. Wassenaar
  • Borja Milá
  • Irby Lovette
  • Caroline Dingle
  • Thomas B. Smith
Community Ecology


Altitudinal migration and dispersal is an important component of the life history of several temperate and tropical birds but remains poorly understood due to the limited success of mark and recapture techniques. Stable isotopes of hydrogen (δD) in rainfall, and to a lesser extent, carbon (δ13C) in plants are known to change with altitude and hence may provide the basis of a technique for tracking the altitudinal movements in birds and other wildlife. We investigated the potential for this technique by measuring δ13C, δD, and δ15N values in tail feathers of eight species of hummingbirds (Phaethornis malaris, P. syrmatophorus, P. guy, Adelomyia melanogenys, Coeligena torquata, C. lutetiae, Metallura baroni, M. williami) along an altitudinal gradient (300–3,290 m asl) in the Andes Mountains of Ecuador. Feather δ13C and δD values were correlated and each changed significantly with elevation above 400 m. In general, we found good agreement between feather δD values and those predicted from a generalized relationship of precipitation and surface water δD with altitude. Similarly, feather δ13C values showed an enrichment of ~1.5‰ per 1,000 m over the linear portion of the elevational response. Stable-nitrogen isotope values were variable, and so did not provide useful information on elevation in birds, apart from trophic effects. Overall there appears to be good potential for using the (δD, δ13C) stable isotope approach to track altitudinal movements and to elucidate previously unrecognized patterns of life history variation in both temperate and tropical species that migrate across elevational isotopic gradients.


Altitudinal migration Carbon-13 Deuterium Elevational gradients Nitrogen-15 



We thank Patricia Healy for assistance in preparing feather samples for stable isotope analysis. Hydrogen isotope samples were analyzed at the National Water Research Institute, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, and C and N isotope samples were analyzed at the Department of Soil Science, University of Davis, Davis, California, with the help of David Harris. Funding was provided by a Canadian Wildlife Service operating grant to K. A. H. and an Environment Canada operating grant to L. I. W. We thank G. Castañeda, J. Chaves, J. Freile, O. Rodriguez, B. Ryder, and T. Santander, for assistance in the field, L. Coloma, Museo de Zoología, Universidad Católica del Ecuador, the staff at CECIA and H. Greeney for support. This work was also supported by NSF grant IRCEB-9977072 to T. B. S. Constructive comments on an earlier manuscript were made by Todd Dawson and two anonymous reviewers.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • Keith A. Hobson
    • 1
    Email author
  • Len I. Wassenaar
    • 2
  • Borja Milá
    • 3
  • Irby Lovette
    • 4
  • Caroline Dingle
    • 5
  • Thomas B. Smith
    • 3
  1. 1.Environment CanadaCanadian Wildlife ServiceSaskatoonCanada
  2. 2.Environment CanadaNational Water Research InstituteSaskatoonCanada
  3. 3.Department of Organismic Biology Ecology and Evolution and Center for Tropical Research, Institute of the EnvironmentUniversity of California, Los AngelesCA 90095-1606 USA
  4. 4.Cornell Laboratory of OrnithologyIthacaUSA
  5. 5.Department of BiologySan Francisco State UniversitySan FranciscoUSA

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