Application of compound-specific isotope analysis (CSIA) in sediment fingerprinting source apportionment studies is becoming more frequent, as it can potentially provide robust land-use-based source attribution of suspended sediments in freshwater and marine systems. Isotopic tracers such as δ13C values of vegetation-derived organic compounds are considered to be suitable for the CSIA-based fingerprinting method. However, a rigorous evaluation of tracer conservativeness in terms of the stability of isotopic signature during detachment and transport of soil during erosion is essential for the suitability of the method. With the aim to identify potential fractionation and shifts in tracer signature during early degradation of organic matter in surface soils, we measured concentrations and δ13C values of
long-chain fatty acids and n-alkanes from fresh plant biomass (as vegetation is a direct source of these compounds to the soils), degraded organic horizon (O horizon), and mineral soil (A horizon) from various forest types with different humus forms (five sites). The bulk δ13C values showed continuous 13C enrichment through the degradation stages
from fresh plant material to the O and A horizons, ranging between 3.5 ‰ and 5.6 ‰. Compound-specific δ13C values showed a general 13C enrichment for both long-chain fatty acids (up to 5 ‰) and n-alkanes (up to 3.9 ‰) from fresh plant biomass to the O horizon overlying the A horizon. However, only slight or no further changes occurred from the O to the A horizon. We also compared compound-specific δ13C values between two soil particle size classes (<2 mm and <63 µm) from four sites and found no significant differences of tracer values between them, with even less fractionation for the long-chain n-alkanes within the soil particle fractions. This points to the conclusion that sampling and analysing bulk soil material might be valid for the isotopic tracer applications. We further conclude that our results support the suitability of studied isotopic tracers as a representative source soil signature in the CSIA-based sediment source attribution, as they demonstrated necessary stability in the plant–soil system during organic matter degradation.