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Determining trophic niche width: A novel approach using stable isotope analysis

Bearhop, S., Adams, C., Waldron, S., Fuller, R.A. & Macleod, H. 2004. Determining trophic niche width: A novel approach using stable isotope analysis. Journal of Animal Ecology, 73, 1007–1012.

1. Although conceptually robust, it has proven difficult to find practical measures of niche width that are simple to obtain, yet provide an adequate descriptor of the ecological position of the population examined.

2. Trophic niche has proven more tractable than other niche dimensions. However, indices used as a proxy for trophic niche width often suffer from the following difficulties. Such indices rarely lie along a single scale making comparisons between populations or species difficult; have difficulty in combining dietary prey diversity and evenness in an ecologically meaningful way; and fail to integrate diet over ecological time-scales thus usually only comprise single snapshots of niche width.

3. We propose an alternative novel method for the comparison of trophic niche width: the use of variance of tissue stable isotope ratios, especially those of nitrogen and carbon.

4. This approach is a potentially powerful method of measuring trophic niche width, particularly if combined with conventional approaches, because: it provides a single measure on a continuous axis that is common to all species; it integrates information on only assimilated prey over time; the integration period changes with choice of tissue sampled; and data production is theoretically fast and testing among populations simple.

5. Empirical studies are now required to test the benefits of using isotopic variance as a measure of niche width, and in doing so help refine this approach.

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