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Using Stable Isotopes to Assess the Contribution of Terrestrial and Riverine Organic Matter to Diets of Nearshore Marine Consumers in a Glacially Influenced Estuary


Terrestrial and marine ecosystems in Southeast Alaska are linked by the flow of freshwater from precipitation and glacial runoff, which transports nutrients and organic matter (OM) downstream to estuaries. We examined the contribution of terrestrial-riverine and marine OM to diets of fishes (N = 257, four species) and invertebrates (N = 90, six species) collected from glacially influenced estuaries in Southeast Alaska using multiple stable isotopes (δ13C, δ15N, and δ34S). Multivariate analysis of similarity (ANOSIM) was used to quantify variation in stable isotope composition of consumers across 6 months and three sites with watersheds that differed in their glacier and forest composition. Fishes showed weak differences (ANOSIM R = 0.141) in stable isotope composition among sampling months, moderate differences (ANOSIM R = 0.375) among sites, and strong differences (ANOSIM R = 0.583) among species. Invertebrates showed moderate differences (ANOSIM R = 0.352) in stable isotope composition among sampling months and strong differences among sites (ANOSIM R = 0.710) and species (ANOSIM R = 0.858). We found the greatest differences in stable isotope composition between the two estuary sites with watersheds containing the highest and lowest glacial coverage, indicating that the contribution of allochthonous OM to consumer diets varies across watershed types. Invertebrates collected from the site with the lowest glacial coverage in the watershed were more depleted in δ13C and δ34S, indicating higher use of terrestrial-riverine OM, than those at sites with higher watershed glacial coverage. High variation in stable isotope composition among species, months, and sites underscores the complexity of estuary food web responses to future glacier loss.

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We thank Asia Beder, Doug Duncan, Ragnhildur Fridriksdottir, Melissa Rhodes-Reese, and many field volunteers for their assistance in collecting fish and invertebrate samples. Thanks to Carolyn Bergstrom, Franz Mueter, and two anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments on earlier drafts of this manuscript. This study was funded by the Alaska Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) NSF award no. OIA-1208927, Alaska Sea Grant (award no. RR/14-01), and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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Whitney, E.J., Beaudreau, A.H. & Howe, E.R. Using Stable Isotopes to Assess the Contribution of Terrestrial and Riverine Organic Matter to Diets of Nearshore Marine Consumers in a Glacially Influenced Estuary. Estuaries and Coasts 41, 193–205 (2018).

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  • Carbon source
  • Southeast Alaska
  • Allochthonous subsidy
  • Estuary
  • Terrestrial organic matter
  • Glacier