Isotopic nitrogen in fecal fiber as an indicator of winter diet in caribou and muskoxen. Academic Article uri icon


  • RATIONALE: The ratios of stable nitrogen isotopes ((15)N values) in excreta have been used to examine aspects of trophic and nutritional ecology across taxa. Nitrogen fractions in feces of herbivores include endogenous (e.g., sloughed intestinal cells, unresorbed digestive secretions, and microbial debris) and dietary sources. For animals such as large herbivores, that have diets and feces with high concentrations of indigestible fiber, endogenous (15)N may constrain the use of fecal (15)N values to estimate dietary (15)N values and reconstruct diets. METHODS: We compared two techniques (detergent and detergent-free) to isolate fractions of plant fibers in the forages of caribou (Rangifer tarandus) and muskoxen (Ovibos moschatus); estimated the discrimination factors between the (15)N values of fecal fiber residues and of the diets of captive animals; and used the more effective isotopic tracer of dietary (15)N values to examine the relationships between the (15)N values of fecal residues and diet composition in several populations of wild caribou and muskoxen throughout North America in winter. RESULTS: The detergent-based approach contaminated the fractions of plant fibers in forages and feces with (14)N, whereas the detergent-free method was a good proxy to estimate (15)N values of plant fibers (r(2) =0.92) and provided a better estimate of the fecal-fiber to diet discrimination factor for both species (caribou=3.6; muskoxen=2.8). In wild populations, the (15)N values of fecal fibers reflected diet composition in muskoxen (adjusted R(2)=0.43) but not caribou (adjusted R(2)=0.06). CONCLUSIONS: Contamination from detergent residues prohibited the use of detergent extraction in isolating forage (15)N from endogenous (15)N in the feces of herbivores. Although (15)N values in fecal fibers can be used to track dietary (15)N values in wild herbivores, discrimination between fecal extracts and diet may vary with the contribution of endogenous nitrogen (N), and, therefore, residual endogenous (15)N in feces may limit dietary reconstructions from fecal (15)N values for some large herbivores.

published proceedings

  • Rapid Commun Mass Spectrom

altmetric score

  • 16.03

author list (cited authors)

  • Gustine, D. D., Barboza, P. S., Addison, J., Shively, R., & Oliver, L.

citation count

  • 11

complete list of authors

  • Gustine, David D||Barboza, Perry S||Addison, Jennifer||Shively, Rachel||Oliver, Lola

publication date

  • March 2014