Open Access Open Badges Research article

Spurious and functional correlates of the isotopic composition of a generalist across a tropical rainforest landscape

Terrence P McGlynn1*, Hee K Choi1, Stefanie T Mattingly1, Angela Upshaw1, Evan K Poirson2 and Justin Betzelberger3

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biology, California State University Dominguez Hills,1000 E Victoria St Carson, CA 90747, USA

2 Department of Biology, Occidental College, Los Angeles, CA, USA

3 East Valley High School, Los Angeles Unified School District, North Hollywood, CA, USA

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Ecology 2009, 9:23  doi:10.1186/1472-6785-9-23

Published: 24 November 2009



The isotopic composition of generalist consumers may be expected to vary in space as a consequence of spatial heterogeneity in isotope ratios, the abundance of resources, and competition. We aim to account for the spatial variation in the carbon and nitrogen isotopic composition of a generalized predatory species across a 500 ha. tropical rain forest landscape. We test competing models to account for relative influence of resources and competitors to the carbon and nitrogen isotopic enrichment of gypsy ants (Aphaenogaster araneoides), taking into account site-specific differences in baseline isotope ratios.


We found that 75% of the variance in the fraction of 15N in the tissue of A. araneoides was accounted by one environmental parameter, the concentration of soil phosphorus. After taking into account landscape-scale variation in baseline resources, the most parsimonious model indicated that colony growth and leaf litter biomass accounted for nearly all of the variance in the δ15N discrimination factor, whereas the δ13C discrimination factor was most parsimoniously associated with colony size and the rate of leaf litter decomposition. There was no indication that competitor density or diversity accounted for spatial differences in the isotopic composition of gypsy ants.


Across a 500 ha. landscape, soil phosphorus accounted for spatial variation in baseline nitrogen isotope ratios. The δ15N discrimination factor of a higher order consumer in this food web was structured by bottom-up influences - the quantity and decomposition rate of leaf litter. Stable isotope studies on the trophic biology of consumers may benefit from explicit spatial design to account for edaphic properties that alter the baseline at fine spatial grains.