Journal of Tropical Ecology

A stable isotope study of a neotropical stream food web prior to the extirpation of its large amphibian community

Piet Verburg a1c1, Susan S. Kilham a2, Catherine M. Pringle a1, Karen R. Lips a3 and Dana L. Drake a1p1
a1 Institute of Ecology, University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602, USA
a2 Department of Bioscience and Biotechnology, Drexel University, 3141 Chestnut, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA
a3 Department of Zoology, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL 62901-6501, USA

Article author query
verburg p   [PubMed][Google Scholar] 
kilham ss   [PubMed][Google Scholar] 
pringle cm   [PubMed][Google Scholar] 
lips kr   [PubMed][Google Scholar] 
drake dl   [PubMed][Google Scholar] 


Rapid and massive amphibian population declines have been reported throughout upland areas of the Neotropics. The abundance and species richness of Neotropical amphibian communities suggest that losses of this magnitude are likely to have strong effects at the ecosystem level. To improve understanding of the implications of their loss we used stable isotope analysis to examine trophic relationships in an ecosystem in which amphibians are dominant in a second-order forest stream at 750 m asl in Parque Nacional Omar Torrijos Herrera, Panama. We analysed δ13C, δ15N and C:N ratios of major biotic components (basal resources, invertebrates, amphibians, fish and reptiles) in the stream and of the adjacent riparian food web. Tadpoles (mean δ15N = 4.49‰) and adult amphibians (mean δ15N = 5.45‰) were intermediate links in the aquatic and terrestrial food web respectively. High δ15N signatures identified fish as top predators in the aquatic food web and snakes and the toad Bufo as top predators in the terrestrial food web. Isotopic signatures clearly distinguished between trophic groups of tadpoles: microbial feeders (Centrolenidae, δ15N range = 0.91–3.05‰), herbivores (Rana and Hyla, δ15N range = 4.74–5.15‰) and neuston feeders (Colostethus, δ15N range = 5.31–6.40‰). Dependence on autotrophic production was indicated by enriched signatures of carbon isotopes in pool dwellers versus those that reside in faster-flowing sections of the stream. High nitrogen concentrations in detrital matter (average 0.8%, C:N = 10.3) suggested that grazing tadpoles enhanced nitrogen fluxes and improved the quality of organic matter available to detritivores.

(Published Online October 29 2007)
(Accepted September 3 2007)

Key Words: δ13C; δ15N; amphibian declines; aquatic invertebrates; Panama; stable isotopes; tadpoles.

c1 Corresponding author. Email:
p1 Present address: Public Lands Institute, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 4505 Maryland Parkway, Las Vegas, NV 89154, USA.