Use of stable carbon and nitrogen isotopes in insect trophic ecology

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74 Citations (Scopus)


Insects are the most diverse organisms and often the most abundant animals in some ecosystems. Despite the importance of their functional roles and of the knowledge for conservation, the trophic ecology of many insect species is not fully understood. In this review, I present how stable carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) isotopes have been used to reveal the trophic ecology of insects over the last 30years. The isotopic studies on insects have used differences in C isotope ratios between C3 and C4 plants, along vertical profiles of temperate and tropical forest stands, and between terrestrial and aquatic resources. These differences enable exploration of the relative importance of the food resources, as well as movement and dispersal of insects across habitats. The 13C-enrichment (approximately 3‰) caused by saprotrophic fungi can allow the estimation of the importance of fungi in insect diets. Stable N isotopes have revealed food resource partitioning across diverse insect species above and belowground. Detritivorous insects often show a large trophic enrichment in 13C (up to 3‰) and 15N (up to 10‰) relative to the food substrates, soil organic matter. These values are greater than those commonly used for estimation of trophic level. This enrichment likely reflects the prevalence of soil microbial processes, such as fungal development and humification, influencing the isotopic signatures of diets in detritivores. Isotope analysis can become an essential tool in the exploration of insect trophic ecology in terms of biogeochemical C and N cycles, including trophic interactions, plant physiological and soil microbial processes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)295-312
Number of pages18
JournalEntomological Science
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Jul 1 2015


  • Above and belowground
  • Aquatic subsidy
  • Carbon and nitrogen cycles
  • Detrital subsidy
  • Food web
  • Humification
  • Trophic level

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Insect Science


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