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Assessing the robustness of quantitative fatty acid signature analysis to assumption violations

September 6, 2015


  1. Knowledge of animal diets can provide important insights into life history and ecology, relationships among species in a community and potential response to ecosystem change or perturbation. Quantitative fatty acid signature analysis (QFASA) is a method of estimating diets from data on the composition, or signature, of fatty acids stored in adipose tissue. Given data on signatures of potential prey, a predator diet is estimated by minimizing the distance between its signature and a mixture of prey signatures. Calibration coefficients, constants derived from feeding trials, are used to account for differential metabolism of individual fatty acids. QFASA has been widely applied since its introduction and several variants of the original estimator have appeared in the literature. However, work to compare the statistical properties of QFASA estimators has been limited.
  2. One important characteristic of an estimator is its robustness to violations of model assumptions. The primary assumptions of QFASA are that prey signature data contain representatives of all prey types consumed and the calibration coefficients are known without error. We investigated the robustness of two QFASA estimators to a range of violations of these assumptions using computer simulation and recorded the resulting bias in diet estimates.
  3. We found that the Aitchison distance measure was most robust to errors in the calibration coefficients. Conversely, the Kullback–Leibler distance measure was most robust to the consumption of prey without representation in the prey signature data.
  4. In most QFASA applications, investigators will generally have some knowledge of the prey available to predators and be able to assess the completeness of prey signature data and sample additional prey as necessary. Conversely, because calibration coefficients are derived from feeding trials with captive animals and their values may be sensitive to consumer physiology and nutritional status, their applicability to free-ranging animals is difficult to establish. We therefore recommend that investigators first make any improvements to the prey signature data that seem warranted and then base estimation on the Aitchison distance measure, as it appears to minimize risk from violations of the assumption that is most difficult to verify.
Publication Year 2016
Title Assessing the robustness of quantitative fatty acid signature analysis to assumption violations
DOI 10.1111/2041-210X.12456
Authors Jeffrey F. Bromaghin, Suzanne M. Budge, Gregory W. Thiemann, Karyn D. Rode
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Methods in Ecology and Evolution
Index ID 70162240
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Alaska Science Center Biology MFEB