Bulk and amino acid nitrogen isotopes suggest shifting nitrogen balance of pregnant sharks across gestation

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Department of Biological Sciences; Great Lakes Research Center


Nitrogen isotope (δ15N) analysis of bulk tissues and individual amino acids (AA) can be used to assess how consumers maintain nitrogen balance with broad implications for predicting individual fitness. For elasmobranchs, a ureotelic taxa thought to be constantly nitrogen limited, the isotopic effects associated with nitrogen-demanding events such as prolonged gestation remain unknown. Given the linkages between nitrogen isotope variation and consumer nitrogen balance, we used AA δ15N analysis of muscle and liver tissue collected from female bonnethead sharks (Sphyrna tiburo, n = 16) and their embryos (n = 14) to explore how nitrogen balance may vary across gestation. Gestational stage was a strong predictor of bulk tissue and AA δ15N values in pregnant shark tissues, decreasing as individuals neared parturition. This trend was observed in trophic (e.g., Glx, Ala, Val), source (e.g., Lys), and physiological (e.g., Gly) AAs. Several potential mechanisms may explain these results including nitrogen conservation, scavenging, and bacterially mediated breakdown of urea to free ammonia that is used to synthesize AAs. We observed contrasting patterns of isotopic discrimination in embryo tissues, which generally became enriched in 15N throughout development. This was attributed to greater excretion of nitrogenous waste in more developed embryos, and the role of physiologically sensitive AAs (i.e., Gly and Ser) to molecular processes such as nucleotide synthesis. These findings underscore how AA isotopes can quantify shifts in nitrogen balance, providing unequivocal evidence for the role of physiological condition in driving δ15N variation in both bulk tissues and individual AAs.

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