Yolk carotenoids and stable isotopes reveal links among environment, foraging behavior and seabird breeding success

J. Mark Hipfner, James Dale, Kevin McGraw

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Nutrients that are limited in availability, such as carotenoids, are potentially involved in trade-offs between homeostasis and reproduction. Despite their importance, factors that affect the capacity of female birds to meet their carotenoid requirements are poorly understood. We used δ15N stable isotope analysis to relate foraging behavior to yolk carotenoid deposition in two seabirds, Cassin's auklet (Ptychoramphus aleuticus) and rhinoceros auklet (Cerorhinca monocerata), during each of five years. As expected from their narrower trophic range, Cassin's auklets produced yolks with fewer carotenoid types than did rhinoceros auklets (one vs. three). Cassin's auklets also fed on a lower trophic level diet richer in carotenoids, yet had lower total yolk carotenoid levels, which suggests a role for species-specific adaptations for carotenoid uptake and utilization. Within both species, lower trophic-level feeding was linked to higher yolk carotenoid levels, but through different mechanisms. In Cassin's auklets, it was due to a population-wide response to environmental variation: in warm-water years, all females fed at a low trophic level and produced carotenoid-rich yolks. In rhinoceros auklets, it was due to individual differences similarly expressed in all years: females fed across a wide trophic range, and those that fed at a low trophic level produced carotenoid-rich yolks. Rhinoceros auklets bred more successfully in years when their yolks were rich in carotenoids, probably due to a correlated response to stronger marine primary production. Our results are novel because they link avian yolk carotenoid deposition to behavioral and environmental variations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)351-360
Number of pages10
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2010


  • Breeding success
  • Carotenoids
  • Foraging
  • Macronutrients
  • Trophic range

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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