When Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus spp.) spawn and die, they deliver marine-derived nutrient subsidies to freshwater and riparian ecosystems. These subsidies can alter the behavior, productivity, and abundance of recipient species and their habitats. Isotopes, such as nitrogen-15 (15N), are often used to trace the destination of marine-derived nutrients in riparian habitats. However, few studies have tested for correlations between stable isotopes and physiological responses of riparian organisms. We examined whether increases in δ15N in terrestrial insect bodies adjacent to salmon spawning habitat translate to changes in percent nitrogen content and body size. This involved comparisons between distance from a salmon-bearing river, marine-derived nutrients in soils and insects, soil moisture content, and body size and nitrogen content in two common beetle families (Coleoptera: Curculionidae, Carabidae). As predicted, δ15N in riparian soils attenuated with distance from the river but was unaffected by soil moisture. This gradient was mirrored by δ15N in the herbivorous curculionid beetles, whereas carabid beetles, which feed at a higher trophic level and are more mobile, did not show discernable patterns in their δ15N content. Additionally, neither distance from the river nor body δ15N content was related to beetle body size. We also found that nitrogen-15 was not correlated with total percent nitrogen in insect bodies, meaning that the presence of spawning salmon did not increase the percent nitrogen content of these insects. We conclude that while salmon-derived nutrients had entered terrestrial food webs, the presence of δ15N alone did not indicate meaningful physiological changes in these insects in terms of percent nitrogen nor body size. While stable isotopes may be useful tracers of marine-derived nutrients, they cannot necessarily be used as a proxy for physiologically important response variables.
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