Conference Paper

Daisy, what did you eat when we weren't looking?

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Over the last ten years or so, there has been increasing interest in high-resolution, time-resolved stable isotope records in animal tissues such as teeth, hair or hooves. Controlled feeding experiments are instrumental in improving our interpretation of such records in domestic and wild animals as well as fossils. Diet-switch studies provide information on the mechanisms and timing of isotope incorporation into tissues, allowing us to reconstruct the individual dietary history of modern and fossil animals. However, complex experiments can sometimes have unexpected outcomes. Here we report on a large-scale experiment designed to investigate the dynamics of C and N isotope changes recorded in bovine hair and hooves resulting from a diet-switch over a 24 week period. Post-mortem high-resolution isotopic profiles in hair and hooves of nine individual cattle revealed that at least two unplanned dietary shifts in C and N occurred several weeks after the cattle had been switched to an experimental, isotopically distinct diet. Using our isotopic data, we calculated the growth rates of hair and hooves from each individual and determined the timing of the two unexpected diet switches. Applying a modelling approach similar to that developed for horses (Ayliffe et al. 2004; Cerling et al. 2004), we were able to calculate the isotope value of the questionable feed and reconstruct precisely the individual dietary history of the nine cattle. This study demonstrates very convincingly the power of stable isotope time series in hair and hooves as forensic tracers of dietary history. Even though we were not watching Daisy all the time, we now know what she was up to.

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