Stable isotopes reveal links between human food inputs and urban ant diets

Clint A. Penick, Amy M. Savage, Robert R. Dunn

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

59 Scopus citations


The amount of energy consumed within an average city block is an order of magnitude higher than that consumed in any other ecosystem over a similar area. This is driven by human food inputs, but the consequence of these resources for urban animal populations is poorly understood. We investigated the role of human foods in ant diets across an urbanization gradient in Manhattan using carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes. We found that some—but not all—ant species living in Manhattan’s most urbanized habitats had d13C signatures associated with processed human foods. In particular, pavement ants (Tetramorium sp. E) had increased levels of d13C similar to d13C levels in human fast foods. The magnitude of this effect was positively correlated with urbanization. By contrast, we detected no differences in d15N, suggesting Tetramorium feeds at the same trophic level despite shifting to human foods. This pattern persisted across the broader ant community; species in traffic islands used human resources more than park species. Our results demonstrate that the degree urban ants exploit human resources changes across the city and among species, and this variation could play a key role in community structure and ecosystem processes where human and animal food webs intersect.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20142608
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1806
StatePublished - May 7 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Ants
  • New York
  • Nutrition
  • Stable isotopes
  • Tetramorium
  • Urban ecology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Immunology and Microbiology(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Environmental Science(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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