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Oecologia. 2003 Jul;136(2):302-8. Epub 2003 May 20.

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

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  • 1Environment Canada, Canadian Wildlife Service, 115 Perimeter Road, SK S7N 0X4, Saskatoon, Canada.


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 (deltaD) in rainfall, and to a lesser extent, carbon (delta13C) 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 delta13C, deltaD, and delta15N 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 delta13C and deltaD values were correlated and each changed significantly with elevation above 400 m. In general, we found good agreement between feather deltaD values and those predicted from a generalized relationship of precipitation and surface water deltaD with altitude. Similarly, feather delta13C values showed an enrichment of approximately 1.5 per thousand 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 (deltaD, delta13C) 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.

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