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All biologically active elements exist in a number of different isotopic forms, of which two or more are stable. The ratio of the two isotopes may be altered by biological and geophysical processes, and these differences can be utilized in a number of ways by ecologists.

Carbon isotope ratios can be measured in bone collagen or bone mineral (hydroxylapatite), and each of these fractions of bone can be analysed to shed light on different components of diet.

The carbon in bone collagen is predominantly sourced from dietary protein, while the carbon found in bone mineral is sourced from all consumed dietary carbon, included carbohydrates, lipids, and protein.

A wide range of archaeological materials such as metals, glass and lead-based pigments have been sourced using isotopic characterization.

Particularly in the Bronze Age Mediterranean, lead isotope analysis has been a useful tool for determining the sources of metals and an important indicator of trade patterns.

Interpretation of lead isotope data is, however, often contentious and faces numerous instrumental and methodological challenges.

Problems such as the mixing and re-using of metals from different sources, limited reliable data and contamination of samples can be difficult problems in interpretation.

Stable isotopes have become a popular method for understanding aquatic ecosystems because they can help scientists in understanding source links and process information in marine food webs.

These analyses can also be used to a certain degree in terrestrial systems.

Analysis is usually done using a mass spectrometer, detecting small differences between gaseous elements.

Analysis of a sample can cost anywhere from to 0.

Stable isotopes assist scientists in analyzing animal diets and food webs by examining the animal tissues that bear a fixed isotopic enrichment or depletion vs. Muscle or protein fractions have become the most common animal tissue used to examine the isotopes because they represent the assimilated nutrients in their diet.

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