The use of δ]¹³C values of leporid teeth as indicators of past vegetation

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Date

2013-05

Authors

Wicks, Travis Zhi-Rong

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Abstract

Records of change of [delta]13C values in vertebrate teeth offer an opportunity to gain insight into changes in past vegetation. Increasingly, teeth from small mammals are used for such purposes, but because their teeth grow very rapidly, seasonal changes in vegetation potentially provide a large source of variability in carbon isotope composition, complicating interpretations of small mammal tooth isotope data. To investigate the controls of seasonality on the stable isotope composition of fossil teeth, we constructed a Monte-Carlo-based model to simulate the effects of changes in the seasonal pattern of diet in leporid lagomorphs (rabbits and hares) on the distribution of [delta]¹³C values in random populations of leporid teeth from the Edwards Plateau in central Texas. Changes in mean-state, seasonal vegetation range, and relative season length manifest themselves in predictable ways in the median, standard deviation, and skewness of simulated tooth [delta]¹³C populations, provided sufficient numbers of teeth are analyzed. This Monte Carlo model was applied to the interpretation of a 20,000 year record of leporid tooth [delta]¹³C values from Hall's Cave on the Edwards Plateau in central Texas. Variations in the [delta]¹³C values of teeth deposited at the same time (standard deviation = 1.69%) are larger than changes in the mean vegetation composition reconstructed from bulk organic carbon [delta]¹³C, indicating the influence of short-term variability, making it difficult to assess changes in mean C3/C4 vegetation from the tooth [delta]¹³C data. However, populations of teeth from different climate intervals (e.g., the late Glacial, Younger Dryas, and the Holocene) display changes in the shape of the tooth [delta]¹³C distributions. Interpretation of these changes as shifts in seasonal vegetation patterns that are based upon results from our model are consistent with hypothesized climatic changes. An increase in the standard deviation of the tooth population between the late Glacial and the Younger Dryas -- Holocene is consistent with an increase in seasonality. Furthermore, a shift to more C3-dominated vegetation in the tooth [delta]¹³C distribution during the Younger Dryas is accompanied by a more skewed population -- indicative of not only wetter conditions but an increase in the duration in the C3 growing season. However, late Holocene changes in vegetation are not clear in the tooth data, despite the evidence from bulk organic carbon [delta]¹³C values for an increase in % C3 vegetation of 57%. Small mammal teeth can potentially provide unique insights into climate and vegetation on seasonal and longer timescales that complement other data, but should be interpreted with a careful consideration of local conditions, taxon ecology and physiology, and the dominant timescales of isotope variability.

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