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Stable Isotope Facility

University of Wyoming

Application of Stable Isotope Measurements

The application of Stable Isotopes measurements can be used to integrate, indicate, record and trace fundamental ecological processes. Rapid technological advances over the past decade have greatly stimulated the use of isotope analyses by ecologists. This analytical approach is now among the most popular in ecology because of the insights provided by isotope ratios at natural abundance levels.

  • Isotopes integrate ecological processes in space and time. The isotope ratios of plant and animal tissues and organic and inorganic compounds (including gases) in soil represent a temporal integration of significant physiological and ecological processes on the landscape. The timescale of this integration depends on the element turnover rate of the tissue or pool in question. In addition, the isotope ratios of well-mixed environmental reservoirs, such as the atmosphere, streams and aquifers, often represent an integration of source inputs to the system that extend over large spatial scales.  
  • Isotopes indicate the presence and magnitude of key ecological processes. Many ecological processes produce a distinctive isotope fingerprint. The presence or absence of such processes and even their magnitude in relation to other processes are indicated by the stable isotope ratio value relative to known background values.   
  • Isotopes record biological responses to Earth’s changing environmental condition. For cases in which substances or residues accumulate in an incremental fashion, such as in tree rings, animal hair and ice cores, isotope ratios can be used as a record of system response to changing environmental conditions or a proxy record for environmental change.  
  • Isotopes trace the origin and movement of key elements and substances. Owing to isotopic fractionations associated with physical and biological reactions, nutrient and element pools within and among ecosystems often differ isotopically. As a result, the source(s) of essential elements and resources acquired by an organism are easily traced using isotope ratios. Strong geographic patterns in isotope signature variation provide the means to trace the movement or origin of a substance or component at landscape to continental scales.

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Stable Isotope Facility

Berry Center RM 214

Laramie, WY 82071

Phone: (307) 766-6373


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1000 E. University Ave. Laramie, WY 82071
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