Carbon isotope ratios in exhaled CO2 can be used to determine not just present, but also past diets in birds

K A Hatch, B Pinshow, J R Speakman

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38 Citations (Scopus)


We show that an animal's past and present diet can be distinguished through the delta(13)C of exhaled CO2, The exhaled delta(13)C of 12 pigeons fed solely corn (a C-4 plant)for 30 days was -13.63parts per thousand,, (+/-0.30). We then fed six pigeons wheat (a C-3 plant) and continued to feed the other six corn, After 48 h the exhaled delta(13)C from the corn-fed pigeons was unchanged: that from the wheat-fed pigeons was -20.5parts per thousand. We then fasted three of the wheat-fed pigeons for 3 days, after which their exhaled delta(13)C was 14.96parts per thousand., while it was -13.57parts per thousand, in corn-fed pigeons, and -22.22parts per thousand in pigeons that continued on wheat. Thus, we could infer diet from the C-13/C-12 ratios of exhaled CO2. Significantly, breath samples from fasted pigeons also revealed that they had eaten corn when their lipid stores were formed. We also showed that the change in the C-13/C-12 of exhaled CO2 had a half-life of approximately 3.5 h, and a time constant of approximately 6.7 h. Thus one can infer past and present diet from exhaled delta(13)C alone, if the initial breath sample is followed by a fasted breath sample, without harming the animal or having to recapture it successively.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)263-268
Number of pages6
JournalJournal of Comparative Physiology. B, Biochemical, Systemic, and Environmental Physiology
Publication statusPublished - 2002


  • carbon dioxide
  • breath
  • diet
  • dietary history
  • stable isotopes
  • C-13


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