Stable isotope patterns in lake food webs reflect productivity gradients

Kyle D. Zimmer, Ryan C. Grow, Angela R. Tipp, Brian R. Herwig, David F. Staples, James B. Cotner, Peter C. Jacobson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Stable isotopes 13C and 15N are often used in lake ecosystems to assess energy sources and trophic positions, respectively. However, δ13C and δ15N are also influenced by internal biogeochemical processes in epilimnetic and hypolimnetic habitats in lakes, but the extent to which biogeochemical processing mediates isotope values between these two habitats, and whether these patterns are influenced by lake productivity is not known. We sampled δ13C and δ15N in epilimnetic mussels, Chaoborus, cisco (Coregonus artedi), and seston and zooplankton in the epilimnia and hypolimnia of 22 Minnesota (USA) lakes ranging from oligotrophic to eutrophic. We also measured lake temperature–oxygen profiles and light levels to assess factors influencing isotope patterns. Isotope samples were baseline-corrected using epilimnetic mussels in each lake (sample—mussel) to control for watershed-level differences in isotope values. Results showed δ13C in epilimnetic and hypolimnetic zooplankton, hypolimnetic seston, Chaoborus, and cisco became more depleted in δ13C relative to epilimnetic mussels in low-productivity lakes where light penetrated into the hypolimnion, while epilimnetic seston δ13C stayed similar to mussel δ13C in all lakes. This pattern was likely due to hypolimnetic phytoplankton in clearwater lakes incorporating more respired CO2, which is depleted in δ13C, and subsequently passing depleted δ13C values up the food chain. Results also showed habitat differences in δ15N with epilimnetic and hypolimnetic zooplankton, hypolimnetic seston, Chaoborus, and cisco becoming more enriched relative to epilimnetic mussels in low-productivity lakes with higher O2 levels in the hypolimnion, while epilimnetic seston δ15N remained similar to mussel values. The δ15N pattern is consistent with the idea that denitrification and microbial degradation enriched hypolimnetic seston relative to epilimnetic seston in low nutrient lakes, while enhanced epilimnetic primary production enriched epilimnetic δ15N seston relative to hypolimnetic seston in high nutrient lakes. Our results indicate isotopic differences between epilimnetic and hypolimnetic organisms that change along productivity gradients and suggest that microbial processes and the light regime are important drivers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere03244
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 1 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Rachel Sweet, Margaret Thompson, Sarah McNamara, and Ryan Trapp for help in the field and laboratory. Fish sampling by many members of Minnesota Department of Natural Resources field crews was appreciated, and we thank Lucas Borgstrom for coordinating collection of cisco samples. This work was funded by the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Program and the University of St. Thomas.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 The Authors.


  • denitrification
  • eutrophication
  • food webs
  • fractionation
  • microbial processing
  • primary production
  • respiration
  • δC
  • δN


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