Nitrogen isotope ratios and fatty acid composition as indicators of animal diets in belowground systems

Liliane Ruess, Max M. Häggblom, Reinhard Langel, Stefan Scheu

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98 Scopus citations


This study analyses trophic interactions between soil fungi, micro- and mesofauna in microcosm experiments. The trophic shift of 15N and fatty acids (FAs) was investigated in different food chains, which comprised either two (fungi and grazers) or three (fungi, nematodes and Collembola) levels. Contrary to the widely accepted assumption of 15N enrichment in trophic cascades the experiments revealed enrichment, depletion or no change in 15N of consumers compared to their diet. Factors responsible for this pattern were suggested to be: (1) the main metabolic pathway used for N excretion in ammonotelic nematodes to be similar or depleted in the heavier isotope, and uricotelic Collembola mostly enriched in the heavier isotope; (2) a higher shift in 15N with a high-protein diet (e.g. for predators); (3) compensation due to low-quality food altering the fractionation of 15N. Analysis of the lipid composition showed phospholipids to be generally unaffected and neutral lipids closely related to the FA pattern of the food source. Dietary routing of FAs into neutral lipids occurred, as evidenced by corresponding frequencies of FAs in host and consumer profiles. Additionally, several FAs were only detected in the grazer when present in the food source. Oleic acid showed a shift over three trophic levels, from fungi to nematodes to Collembola. The assimilation of dietary FAs resulted in a more diverse neutral lipid profile, i.e. animals higher in the food chain contained more individual FAs compared to animals lower in the food chain. The results indicate that monoenoic C18 and monoenoic C20 FAs have the potential to act as tools for the bioindication of feeding strategies in belowground systems. We suggest that primary consumers will have no or only trace amounts of monoenoic C20 acids in their neutral lipid profile, whereas consumers feeding on a eukaryote diet will show a considerably higher frequency.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)336-346
Number of pages11
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 2004

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


  • Fungi
  • Lipids
  • Soil fauna
  • Stable isotopes
  • Trophic transfer


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