Article

Improved estimates of certainty in stable-isotope-based methods for tracking migratory animals

Ecological Applications (Impact Factor: 4.13). 03/2008; 18(2):549-559. DOI: 10.1890/07-0058.1

ABSTRACT The use of stable-hydrogen isotopes (delta D) has become a common tool for estimating geographic patterns of movement in migratory animals. This method relies on broad and relatively predictable geographic patterning in delta D values of precipitation, but these patterns are not estimated without error. In addition, delta D measurements are relatively imprecise, particularly for organic tissue. Most models for estimating geographic locations have ignored these sources of error. Common modeling approaches include regression, range-matching, and likelihood-based assignment tests (including discriminant analysis). Here, we show the benefits of a simple stochastic extension to likelihood-based assignment tests that incorporates two estimable sources of error and describe the resulting influence on the certainty of assigning breeding origins for wintering American Redstarts (Setophaga ruticilla), a small Nearctic-Neotropical migratory bird. Through simulation, we incorporated both spatial interpolation error associated with models of delta D in precipitation and analytical error associated with the measurement of delta D in tissue samples. In general, assignments that did not include these sources of error fell within the ranges of the stochastic results, but the difference in proportion of birds assigned to any one breeding region varied by as much as 54%. To explore how the distribution of assignments generated from error models influenced the application of these results, we developed a simple model of winter habitat loss. We removed the proportion of Redstarts wintering at a particular site from the global population and then used the isotope-based assignments to predict the resulting population declines for each breeding region. This gave distributions of change in population sizes, some of which included no change or even a population increase. The sources of error we modeled may challenge the degree of certainty in the use of stable-isotope-based data on connectivity to predict population dynamics of migratory animals. We suggest that stronger inference will result from incorporating these sources of error into future studies that use delta D or other stable isotopes to infer the geographic origin of individuals.

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