Using stable isotope data to advance marine food web modelling

  • Stacey A. McCormackEmail author
  • Rowan Trebilco
  • Jessica Melbourne-Thomas
  • Julia L. Blanchard
  • Elizabeth A. Fulton
  • Andrew Constable


Marine ecosystem models that incorporate fisheries and climate change are essential for forecasting and guiding sustainable ecosystem management decisions. A key challenge in developing and applying ecosystem models that are able to provide robust predictions for management is to accurately represent the structure and dynamics of food webs. Ecosystem models vary in complexity and formulation and there is no set method routinely used to evaluate the skill of a model to correctly represent food web characteristics. One approach for evaluation is the comparison of modelled food web attributes with measures of stable isotope composition of taxa. While this approach has been used in some studies, its full potential has not been realised. Critically, directly modelling the assumed underlying processes that give rise to stable isotope signatures in ecosystem models has only just begun to be explored. Here, we examine the process of building ecosystem models and assess the potential for incorporating stable isotope results into this process, including the evaluation of model skill. We consider both size- and species- based ecosystem modelling approaches for their potential in this regard. We discuss that whilst conceptually achievable, in practice this is highly challenging through highlighting the advances and challenges in using stable isotope data, including the implications of precision associated with isotope-based measurements. We conclude with a proposed framework for explicitly integrating stable isotope data into both size- and species- based ecosystem models as an example of how signatures may be more powerfully used in the modelling process, and highlight key needs for future work.


Ecopath Ecosystem model Management strategy evaluation Size spectrum Stable isotopes 



This work was supported by the Australian government’s Cooperative Research Centre Program through the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre (ACE CRC) and through the Australian Antarctic Science Program (Projects 4347 and 4366). SAM acknowledges funding from the AAD-UTAS Quantitative Antarctic Science Program, and the Australian Research Training Program. RT was supported by the RJL Hawke Postdoctoral Fellowship. We thank Christopher Griffiths, Dr Andrea Walters, Dr Clive Trueman, Dr Kevin J Flynn and five anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on previous versions of the manuscript.


Ecosystem-based management

Natural resource management that recognizes the interconnectedness and interdependent nature of ecosystem components as well as the importance of ecosystem structures and functions

Ecosystem model

A theoretical representation of an ecological system (incorporating processes on the scale from an individual population, to an ecological community or even an entire biome), which is studied to gain understanding of the real system (Hall and Day 1977)


The process of assessing a model’s skill in representing the real world from the perspective of its intended use. There has been much debate around the use of the term “validation” in regards to ecosystem models (e.g. Rykiel 1996) particularly when addressing dynamic or predictive models. Many studies have emphasized that simulation models are unable to replicate (in a forecast sense) complex ecosystems due to unavoidable assumptions and generality, therefore cannot truly be “validated” (Gregr and Chan 2014). However, other authors feel this is an argument in semantics, as ecosystem models have many levels of validation, with forecast being only one such level. Equally valid is the testing of the model’s ability to capture the core patterns and dynamic relationships of causality through space and time (Fulton 2010). We use the term evaluation here to encompass these concepts

Food-web model

A subset of ecosystem models, applied for quantifying direct and indirect trophic interactions, for comparing food web properties, and for evaluating food web responses to human pressures and environmental change

Model skill

A term that originated from biophysical models that has recently been applied to marine ecosystem models (Olsen et al. 2016). The ability of a model to reproduce the true system state inferred from the best estimate available (e.g. another model or data collected directly from the system of interest)


The process of deciding and defining the parameters necessary for a complete ecosystem model

Preferred PPMR

The preferred prey size of predators, as a proportion of their body weight. This prey size preference is used in parameterising size-based food web models

Realised PPMR

Predator-prey mass ratio that arises from a combination of preferred PPMR and availability. Realised PPMR is what is estimated from isotope data, and is the PPMR used as a parameter in macroecological models (Jennings and Collingridge 2015)


Independent sets of biological or ecological measurements derived from field observations

Supplementary material

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Supplementary material 1 (PDF 202 kb)


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute for Marine and Antarctic StudiesUniversity of TasmaniaHobartAustralia
  2. 2.Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research CentreUniversity of TasmaniaHobartAustralia
  3. 3.Australian Antarctic Division, Department of the Environment and EnergyKingstonAustralia
  4. 4.CSIRO [Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation] Oceans and Atmosphere FlagshipHobartAustralia

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