Effects of tissue decomposition on stable isotope ratios and implications for use of stranded animals in research
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Effects of tissue decomposition on stable isotope ratios and implications for use of stranded animals in research

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    Stable isotope analysis (SIA) provides ecological data that can be safely and efficiently collected on endangered, threatened, and cryptic species. Marine mammals are an ecologically important group for which economical and logistical constraints can make data collection challenging. Stranded marine mammals are often used in research, but the causes of strandings and subsequent tissue decomposition could affect SIA. We conducted a three‐part study to test the validity of using δ13C and δ15N values from tissues of stranded bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) and West Indian manatees (Trichechus manatus) for ecological studies. First, we quantified isotopic overlap using ellipses based on 95% of the data to compare isotope values in skin between stranded and live‐captured animals. Second, we compared stable isotope values from liver, skin, and muscle of animals that had stranded and were sampled at different decomposition stages. Third, we experimentally exposed each tissue to environmental conditions and sampled tissues as they decomposed. For both dolphins and manatees, isotopic ellipses from skin of stranded carcasses were similar to live‐captured individuals. Among individuals recovered at different decomposition stages, more advanced decomposition affected δ13C values in dolphin liver and skin but not in manatee tissues and had no effect on δ15N values in any tissue for either species. In the experimental manipulation, decomposition resulted in depleted δ13C values, enriched δ15N values, and increased C:N in liver for both species. Skin and muscle from stranded dolphins and manatees are representative of their corresponding live populations and can be used for SIA with appropriate caution. To facilitate the use of tissues from stranded animals, tissues should be dried or frozen for storage as soon as possible after sampling. We recommend liver from stranded animals only be used for SIA when researchers need tissues with short turnover times and can access fresh samples. Without consideration of decomposition effects on isotope values, ecologists may make inaccurate inferences about habitat use, diet, and community structure. Careful use of SIA on tissues from stranded animals can help researchers provide better quality information for managers and policy makers.
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    Ecosphere, 14(2)
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    CC BY
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