Academic Commons

Theses Doctoral

Testing Foundational Tenets of Stable Isotope Ecology Analyses in Neotropical Mammalian Communities, and Implications for Terrestrial Paleoecology

Tejada-Lara, Julia Victoria

Stable isotope analyses are powerful tools for reconstructing ancient ecologies and ecosystems, as they are independent of morphology and directly reflect dietary ecology. The application of stable isotope analyses, however, is not without limitations, as determination of food web dynamics using these methods often relies on poorly tested assumptions. The guiding thread of this thesis is the testing of foundational cornerstones on which these methods rely, in order to validate the suitability of applying these techniques to different mammalian clades, and to more reliably and confidently interpret the isotopic signals preserved in extinct organisms.

The first chapter of this thesis tests the validity of an important assumption behind the interpretation of stable carbon isotope analyses for understanding diet in terrestrial mammalian herbivores: if, as assumed for almost two decades, mammalian bioapatite δ¹³C is enriched by 14‰ relative to dietary δ¹³C. By analyzing new isotopic data from a never before assessed herbivorous group spanning a broad range of body masses—sloths (Xenarthra, Mammalia)— and other mammals with experimentally controlled or observationally known diets, I discovered considerable variation in diet–bioapatite δ¹³C enrichment among mammals. Statistical tests (ordinary least squares, quantile, robust regressions, Akaike information criterion model tests) documented independence from phylogeny, and a previously unrecognized strong and significant correlation of δ¹³C enrichment with body mass for all mammalian herbivores. A single-factor body mass model outperformed all other single-factor or more complex combinatorial models evaluated, including for physiological variables (metabolic rate and body temperature proxies), and indicated that body mass alone predicts δ¹³C enrichment. These analyses, spanning more than 5 orders of magnitude of body sizes, yield a size-dependent prediction of isotopic enrichment across Mammalia and for distinct digestive physiologies, permitting reconstruction of foregut versus hindgut fermentation physiologies for fossils and refined mean annual paleoprecipitation estimates based on δ¹³C of mammalian bioapatite.

Second, I sought to evaluate the existing paradigm governing identification of closed canopy rainforests in the fossil record using mammalian δ¹³C data: the presence of mammals with dietary δ¹³C <-31‰, which has only been observed in closed canopy rainforests in Equatorial Africa, the only other tropical ecosystem sampled extensively. This chapter provides a characterization of δ¹³Cbioapatite, δ¹³Chair and δ¹⁵Nhair of a modern mammalian community in western Amazonia, in Peru, to test if the isotopic structure of mammals in this Neotropical ecosystem is similar to those in African tropical rainforests. The results indicate that despite their marked geographical and taxonomic differences, median δ¹³Cdiet values from closed canopy rainforests in Amazonia (-27.4‰) and equatorial Africa (-26.9‰) are not significantly different. Amazonian mammals, however, seem to exploit a narrower spectrum of dietary resources than equatorial African mammals, as depicted by the absence of highly negative δ¹³Cdiet values previously proposed as indicative of rainforests (<-31‰). I hypothesize that differential effects of late Pleistocene extinction may be responsible for the ecological disparities among the two rainforests, by significantly reducing evolutionary time and dietary breadth reflected in the modern Amazonian mammalian community.
Finally, the third chapter of this dissertation evaluates assumptions behind δ¹⁵N amino acid compound specific analyses in order to test the controversial hypothesis of carnivory and consumption of proteins of animal origin in fossil sloths. This analytical technique relies on three main assumptions. First, that the offset between the δ¹⁵N of glutamic acid (δ¹⁵NGlx) and phenylalanine (d15NPhe) in the organism under study will increase with increasing trophic level. Second, that the offset between δ¹⁵NGlx and δ¹⁵NPhe at the base of the food chain is relatively constant and has a value of -8.4‰ for C3 ecosystems. Third, that the trophic discrimination factor in all ecosystems (the difference in δ¹⁵NGlx relative to δ¹⁵NPhe with increasing trophic level) is 7.6‰. The results of my experiments conducted on extant xenarthrans (sloths and anteaters) with controlled diets document that only the first assumption holds true. Rather than relying on an equation with constants introducing uncertainties and that are not applicable to organisms feeding on a combination of items of different origin (e.g., C3 + C4 plants), δ¹⁵NGlx and δ¹⁵NPhe values by themselves can accurately reconstruct the trophic position of organisms. Indeed, the results on δ¹⁵NGlx and δ¹⁵NPhe herein obtained for five xenarthran species in controlled feeding experiments, combined with mammalian data available from the literature, show strong and significant correlations between these two AAs and with trophic positions. Both the TP equation and the regression analyses of δ¹⁵NGlx and δ¹⁵NPhe suggest that the Pleistocene fossil ground sloths 𝘔𝘺𝘭𝘰𝘥𝘰𝘯 𝘥𝘢𝘳𝘸𝘪𝘯𝘪𝘪 and 𝘕𝘰𝘵𝘩𝘳𝘰𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘳𝘪𝘰𝘱𝘴 𝘴𝘩𝘢𝘴𝘵𝘦𝘯𝘴𝘪𝘴 were not pure herbivores as commonly presumed, but rather that they were both mixed feeders/omnivores, incorporating items of animal origin in their diets.

Geographic Areas


  • thumnail for TejadaLara_columbia_0054D_16133.pdf TejadaLara_columbia_0054D_16133.pdf application/pdf 4.65 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
Earth and Environmental Sciences
Thesis Advisors
Flynn, John J.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 6, 2020