Fasting affects amino acid nitrogen isotope values: a new tool for identifying nitrogen balance of free-ranging mammals

07 May 2020

Changes in the nutritional status of free-ranging animals have a strong influence on individual fitness, yet it remains challenging to monitor longitudinally. Nitrogen (δ15N) and carbon (δ13C) isotope values measured chronologically along the length of metabolically inert keratinous tissues can be used as a nutritional biomarker to retrospectively reconstruct the foraging ecology and eco-physiology of consumers. We quantitatively describe the physiological effects of fasting on amino acid metabolism using sequentially measured bulk tissue and amino acid δ15N values along the length of whiskers sampled from free-ranging juvenile, subadults, adult female, and male southern elephant seals (SES; Mirounga leonina) on Marion Island in the Southern Ocean. For both juveniles and adult females, whisker segments representing fasting had significantly higher bulk tissue δ15N values of 0.6 ± 0.5‰ and 1.3–1.8‰, respectively, in comparison to segments unaffected by fasting. We also found a large increase (2–6‰) in δ15N values for most glucogenic amino acids and a simultaneous depletion (2–3‰) of alanine in segments reflecting fasting, which enabled us to accurately predict (74%) the nutritional status of our model species. We hypothesize that the glucose-alanine cycle is the mechanism driving the observed depletion of alanine δ15N values during fasting. We demonstrated that keratinaceous tissues can be used as a longitudinal nutritional biomarker to detect changes in the nitrogen balance of an individual. Moreover, it is evident that physiological factors have an important influence on tissue δ15N values and can lead to erroneous bulk tissue or amino acid isotope-based reconstructions of foraging habits.