Document Type



Virginia Institute of Marine Science

Publication Date



Limnology and Oceanography





First Page


Last Page



Zooplankton contribute a major component of the vertical flux of particulate organic matter to the ocean interior by packaging consumed food and waste into large, dense fecal pellets that sink quickly. Existing methods for quantifying the contribution of fecal pellets to particulate organic matter use either visual identification or lipid biomarkers, but these methods may exclude fecal material that is not morphologically distinct, or may include zooplankton carcasses in addition to fecal pellets. Based on results from seven pairs of wild-caught zooplankton and their fecal pellets, we assess the ability of compound-specific isotope analysis of amino acids (CSIA-AA) to chemically distinguish fecal pellets as an end-member material within particulate organic matter. Nitrogen CSIA-AA is an improvement on previous uses of bulk stable isotope ratios, which cannot distinguish between differences in baseline isotope ratios and fractionation due to metabolic processing. We suggest that the relative trophic position of zooplankton and their fecal pellets, as calculated using CSIA-AA, can provide a metric for estimating the dietary absorption efficiency of zooplankton. Using this metric, the zooplankton examined here had widely ranging dietary absorption efficiencies, where lower dietary absorption may equate to higher proportions of fecal packaging of undigested material. The nitrogen isotope ratios of threonine and alanine statistically distinguished the zooplankton fecal pellets from literature-derived examples of phytoplankton, zooplankton biomass, and microbially degraded organic matter. We suggest that δ15N values of threonine and alanine could be used in mixing models to quantify the contribution of fecal pellets to particulate organic matter.


DOI: 10.1002/lno.11793

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Supplementary Material