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Using δ13C stable isotopes to quantify individual-level diet variation

Abstract

Individual-level diet variation can be easily quantified by gut-content analysis. However, because gut contents are a ‘snapshot’ of individuals’ feeding habits, such cross-sectional data can be subject to sampling error and lead one to overestimate levels of diet variation. In contrast, stable isotopes reflect an individual’s long-term diet, so isotope variation among individuals can be interpreted as diet variation. Nevertheless, population isotope variances alone cannot be directly compared among populations, because they depend on both the level of diet variation and the variance of prey isotope ratios. We developed a method to convert population isotope variances into a standardized index of individual specialization (WIC/TNW) that can be compared among populations, or to gut-content variation. We applied this method to diet and carbon isotope data of four species of frogs of the Brazilian savannah. Isotopes showed that gut contents provided a reliable measure of diet variation in three populations, but greatly overestimated diet variation in another population. Our method is sensitive to incomplete sampling of the prey and to among-individual variance in fractionation. Therefore, thorough sampling of prey and estimates of fractionation variance are desirable. Otherwise, the method is straightforward and provides a new tool for quantifying individual-level diet variation in natural populations that combines both gut-content and isotope data.

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