Radioactive Tracer Studies

Radioactive isotopes move within environmental systems in the same manner as their stable element counterparts. Because of this they can be used as tracers to study the pathways, directions, and rates with which these elements move and cycle within intact natural ecological systems. Moreover since many of these isotopes, particularly the gamma-emitters, can be detected and quantified nondes-tructively (i.e., without killing, grinding, and chemically extracting the organisms in which they are found), they can provide a unique opportunity to conduct time-series analyses of important environmental processes. At the same time moreover, these same isotopic tracer studies can be used to actually determine the structure of the systems in which they are found. Intentionally injecting radioactive tracers into plants for example can, over time, show which consumer organisms are feeding on those plants and thus trace and define the system's food web connections.

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