Stable isotopes, ecological integration and environmental change: Wolves record atmospheric carbon isotope trend better than tree rings

Document Type


Publication Date



Large-scale patterns of isotope ratios are detectable in the tissues of organisms, but the variability in these patterns often obscures detection of environmental trends. We show that plants and animals at lower trophic levels are relatively poor indicators of the temporal trend in atmospheric carbon isotope ratios (δ13C) when compared with animals at higher trophic levels. First, we tested how differences in atmospheric δ13C values were transferred across three trophic levels. Second, we compared contemporary δ13C trends (1961-2004) in atmospheric CO2 to δ13C patterns in a tree species (jack pine, Pinus banksiana), large herbivore (moose, Alces alces) and large carnivore (grey wolf, Canis lupus) from North America. Third, we compared palaeontological (approx. 30 000 to 12 000 14C years before present) atmospheric CO2 trends to δ13C patterns in a tree species (Pinus flexilis, Juniperus sp.), a megaherbivore (bison, Bison antiquus) and a large carnivore (dire wolf, Canis dirus) from the La Brea tar pits (southern California, USA) and Great Basin (western USA). Contrary to previous expectations, we found that the environmental isotope pattern is better represented with increasing trophic level. Our results indicate that museum specimens of large carnivores would best reflect large-scale spatial and temporal patterns of carbon isotopes in the palaeontological record because top predators can act as ecological integrators of environmental change. © 2007 The Royal Society.

Publication Title

Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences