Food web structure regulates the pathways and flow rates of energy, nutrients, and contaminants to top predators. Ecologically and physiologically meaningful biochemical tracers provide a means to characterize and quantify these transfers within food webs. In this study, changes in the ratios of stable N isotopes (e.g., δ15N), fatty acids (FA), and persistent contaminants were used to trace food web pathways utilized by herring gulls (Larus argentatus) breeding along the shores of the St Lawrence River, Canada. Egg δ15N values varied significantly among years and were used as an indicator of gull trophic position. Temporal trends in egg δ15N values were related to egg FA profiles. In years when egg δ15N values were greater, egg FA patterns reflected the consumption of more aquatic prey. Egg δ15N values were also correlated with annual estimates of prey fish abundance. These results indicated that temporal changes in aquatic prey availability were reflected in the gull diet (as inferred from ecological tracer profiles in gull eggs). Analysis of individual eggs within years confirmed that birds consuming more aquatic prey occupied higher trophic positions. Furthermore, increases in trophic position were associated with increased concentrations of most persistent organic contaminants in eggs. However, levels of highly brominated polybrominated diphenyl ether congeners, e.g, 2,2?,3,3?,4,4?,5,5?,6,6?-decabromoDE (BDE-209), showed a negative relationship with trophic position. These contrasting findings reflected differences among contaminant groups/homologs in terms of their predominant routes of transfer, i.e., aquatic versus terrestrial food webs. High trophic level omnivores, e.g., herring gulls, are common in food webs. By characterizing ecological tracer profiles in such species we can better understand spatial, temporal, and individual differences in pathways of contaminant, energy, and nutrient flow.

Additional Metadata
Keywords Fatty acids, Omnivores, Persistent contaminants, St Lawrence River, Stable nitrogen isotopes
Persistent URL dx.doi.org/10.1007/s00442-009-1285-1
Journal Oecologia
Citation
Hebert, C.E, Weseloh, D.V.C. (D. V. Chip), Gauthier, L.T. (Lewis T.), Arts, M.T. (Michael T.), & Letcher, R.J. (2009). Biochemical tracers reveal intra-specific differences in the food webs utilized by individual seabirds. Oecologia, 160(1), 15–23. doi:10.1007/s00442-009-1285-1