New insight from old bones: stable isotope analysis of fossil mammals
Journal of Mammalogy
New insight from old bones: stable isotope analysis of fossil mammals
MARK T. CLEMENTZ 0
0 Department of Geology and Geophysics, University of Wyoming , Laramie, WY 82071 , USA
Stable isotope analysis of fossil materials has become an increasingly important method for gathering dietary and environmental information from extinct species in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. The benefits of these analyses stem from the geochemical fingerprint that an animal's environment leaves in its bones, teeth, and tissues. Ongoing study of living mammals has found the stable isotopic composition of several light (hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and sulfur) and even a few heavy (calcium and strontium) elements to be useful tracers of ecological and physiological information; many of these can be similarly applied to the study of fossil mammals. For instance, the carbon isotopic composition of an animal's tissues tracks that of the food it eats, whereas the oxygen isotopic compositions of the carbonate and phosphate in an animal's bones and teeth are primarily controlled by that of the surface water it drinks or the water in the food it ingests. These stable isotope proxies for diet and habitat information are independent of inferences based on morphological characters and thus provide a means of testing ecological interpretations drawn from the fossil record. As such, when well-preserved specimens are available, any dietary study of fossil species should seriously consider including this approach. To illustrate the potential benefits associated with applying these methods to paleontological research, a review of current work on the ecological and evolutionary history of fossil mammals through geochemical analysis is presented. After a brief introduction to issues associated with the preservation of stable isotopic information in soft and mineralized tissues, a series of case studies involving the application of stable isotope analysis to fossil mammal research is discussed. These studies were selected to highlight the versatility of this analytical method to paleontological research and are complemented by a discussion of new techniques and instrumentation in stable isotope analysis (e.g., laser ablation and compound-specific isotope ratio mass spectrometry, and calcium and clumped isotopes), which represent the latest advances in the extension of these geochemical tools to the paleontology of fossil mammals.
bioapatite; calcium isotopes; collagen; migration; paleodietary reconstruction; strontium isotopes
With the discovery of measurable natural variation in the
stable isotopic composition of vertebrate fossil remains,
paleontologists gained a valuable tool for studying fossil mammals
from ancient marine and terrestrial communities. Because
direct observation of extinct species within a community is not
possible, stable isotope analysis has become an increasingly
important tool for paleontologists interested in the paleoecology
of ancient mammals
(Cerling et al. 1997; Clementz et al. 2003b;
Hoppe et al. 1999; MacFadden et al. 2004)
. Prior to the initial
application of this analytical tool to archaeological
Merwe and Vogel 1978; Vogel and Van der Merwe 1977)
and subsequently paleontological
(DeNiro and Epstein 1978;
Ericson et al. 1981; Schoeninger and DeNiro 1982a, 1982b)
research in the late 1970s and early 1980s, ecological
interpretations of fossil mammals were primarily restricted to
interpretations based on either examination of the morphology
of the specimens or careful study of sedimentary
environments in which fossils were deposited. Because morphological
structure is often strongly correlated with function, examination
of these features, especially dentition and appendicular
skeletal anatomy, can provide information on various ecological
characters, including diet, trophic position, and ecological guild
structure within fossil communities
(Damuth and Janis 2005;
Janis 1993; Meachen-Samuels and Van Valkenburgh 2009;
Van Valkenburgh 1995; Van Valkenburgh et al. 2004)
Likewise, the depositional history inferred from the
sedimentary matrix surrounding the fossilized remains of mammals can
provide information on habitat preferences, species
associations, and climatic tolerances
(Badgley and Behrensmeyer
1980; Behrensmeyer 1988; Boucot and Janis 1983; Zobaa et al.
. However, applying these methods to fossil remains is not
always straightforward. For instance, fossil species may possess
morphological traits that are not present in extant species,
making interpretation of their function and ecological
significance through comparison with analogous structures in living
species impossible. Likewise, the remains of an organism can
be transported considerable distances from where the individual
originally lived and died, biasing interpretations of habitat
preferences of extinct species if based solely on association with
sedimentary environments. Although prone to its own set of
caveats, stable isotope analysis has proven to be an effective
means of assessing the integrity of these other lines of evidence
and, when used in combination with more traditional methods
of paleontological inquiry, can offer a more rigorous and
quantitative method for ecological interpretation that is
independent from morphology- or phylogeny-based inference
and covers a broad range of timescales and environments.
Stable isotope analysis is applied to the paleobiology of
fossil mammals either to gain insight into the biology of the
extinct species or to better understand the environmental
conditions it experienced. Diet, habitat preferences, and
physiology are the most commonly investigated aspects of
fossil mammals sought through the application of stable
isotope analysis. As noted in Ben-David and Flaherty (2012),
isotopic differences among resources ingested by mammals
(i.e., food and water) can serve as natural labels for these
resources, which can then be identified by their incorporation
into the tissues of a mammal. These labels allow paleobiologists
to discriminate among potential diets and habitats for extinct
species. In turn, these labels can provide information about
environmental conditions of a region once biological factors
affecting the fractionation and incorporation of the
environmental signal into tissues of an animal (i.e., vital effects) are
(Ben-David and Flaherty 2012; Mart´ınez del Rio and
. The isotopic compositions of fossil remains are
routinely used by archaeologists, paleoclimatologists, and
paleoceanographers as proxies for temperature, precipitation,
elevation, and salinity of past terrestrial and aquatic
(Behrensmeyer et al. 2007; Fricke et al. 1998; Garzione
et al. 2008; Koch et al. 1995)
. These studies have provided a
wealth of isotopic data that can be exploited by paleobiologists
to answer questions about the ecology of ancient mammals.
Here, I will provide a review of how paleobiologists have
exploited the isotopic composition of fossil remains to answer
questions about the ecology and evolution of mammals. These
techniques can and have been applied to similar questions
within archaeology; however, because the scope of this paper
is fossil mammals (nonhuman), I have restricted the content of
this review to purely paleontological examples. After a brief
introduction into the preservation potential of soft and
mineralized tissues in the fossil record, I will discuss a series
of case studies that exemplify the ways stable isotope analysis
has been applied to paleobiological research of fossil
mammals. Because the popularity of this technique has
increased since its 1st application to paleobiology nearly
40 years ago, these examples represent only a small sampling
of the research that has or is currently being conducted in this
field. For more information on this topic, excellent reviews of
different aspects of this research are provided by Koch (1998,
2007) and Kohn and Cerling (2002).
PRESERVATION OF MAMMAL REMAINS IN THE
For geologically young fossils (,100 3 103 years), both the
inorganic and organic components of the skeleton are
commonly available for stable isotope analysis (Fig. 1) and
can be extremely informative when measured in tandem
(Clementz et al. 2009)
. The stable isotopic compositions of
carbon (d13C), hydrogen (dD), nitrogen (d15N), oxygen
(d18O), and sulfur (d34S) all have been measured from fossil
collagen, as well as carbon and nitrogen isotopic compositions
from individual amino acids within the collagen matrix
and Tuross 2003; Styring et al. 2010)
, making it a suitable
substrate for multiple lines of ecological and physiological
inquiry. Preservation of original isotopic information in bone
and dentin proteins (e.g., collagen) and isolated organic
compounds should be assessed before inferring ecological
information. For collagen, the most commonly used indexes of
preservation quality are the total yield of collagen, the
concentrations and ratio of atomic or molar carbon to nitrogen
(C:Natomic) in collagen, and amino acid analysis
1990; Tuross et al. 1988; van Klinken 1999)
. Based on these
criteria, well-preserved collagen typically constitutes .1% by
weight (wt %) of fossil bone (fresh bone is approximately
22 wt % collagen), is composed of about 35 wt % carbon and
11–16 wt % nitrogen, and has a C:Natomic ratio between 2.9
and 3.6. Collagen yields with ,1 wt % and carbon contents ,
30 wt % are indicative of significant degradation, which may
be large enough to affect the isotopic composition of bulk
(Ambrose 1990; van Klinken 1999)
. When the
carbon content of collagen is much higher (..35 wt %),
contamination from exogenous sources (e.g., soil humic
matter) may be responsible, which can also affect isotopic
composition, making these samples unsuitable for analysis.
Determination of the relative abundances of amino acids in
bulk collagen also is informative because each may degrade at
different rates, creating a composition very different from the
original collagen. Because the isotopic compositions of amino
acids vary greatly, changes in the relative proportions of these
amino acids can further complicate isotopic analysis. For
collagen yields that fall within an acceptable range (20.0–
1.0 wt %), amino acid abundances and profiles do not appear
to vary much from expectations for fresh collagen, so this
appears to only affect specimens that are severely degraded
(,0.5 wt % collagen—van Klinken 1999)
Although unique examples of soft tissue preservation of
Pleistocene-aged and possibly Cretaceous-aged remains are
(Kosintev et al. 2010; Schwarz et al. 2009; Schweitzer
et al. 2002, 2007a, 2007b)
, the rapid degradation of organic
remains shortly after death often excludes most tissues from
stable isotope analysis. Loss of most organics from early
Pleistocene–aged or older fossil remains (.100 thousand
years) means paleontologists are often limited to using
bioapatite, specifically tooth enamel, for stable isotope
analysis. The high crystal density, low organic content
(,5 wt %), and large crystal size of enamel increase its
resistance to diagenetic alteration, a process that involves the
exchange of original biogenic material with pre- or postburial
environmental fluids and is aided by the microbial breakdown
of organic matter in skeletal remains
(Koch et al. 1997;
LeeThorp and van der Merwe 1987; Wang and Cerling 1994;
Zazzo et al. 2004)
. Within enamel, stable isotope analysis has
been performed on several elements: the oxygen within
phosphate (PO4), which is thought to be more resistant to
exchange with fluids; the carbon and oxygen of carbonate
(CO3) that is structurally integrated into the enamel mineral
lattice (2.0–4.0 wt %); and calcium and strontium (Sr), which
are major and trace elements, respectively, within bioapatite.
Of these, stable isotope analysis of carbonate in enamel is
most often measured, because the chemical preparation and
analysis of this component is easier, less time consuming, and
provides isotopes of 2 elements (C and O) for interpretation
rather than just 1 as in phosphate (O).
For bioapatite, isotopic alteration can occur through 5
. The most obvious of these is the
postmortem precipitation of secondary minerals on or around
bioapatite crystals in the fossil remains. Typically, this occurs
following burial as soil or groundwater passes through pore
spaces within skeletal elements, but it can occur before burial
in semiarid or arid environments when soil moisture is pulled
up through bones exposed on the surface
(Trueman et al.
. Similarly, ions freely available from the burial
environment may be adsorbed onto the surface of bioapatite
crystals. This alteration may affect both modern and fossil
materials, but can be removed through controlled chemical
leaching in the laboratory in preparation for analysis. Over
longer timescales, bioapatite may be altered more extensively
through solid-state diffusion; ion or atom exchange within the
crystal lattice (most problematic for bone and dentin due to the
high surface-to-volume ratio of these crystals); and
dissolution, reprecipitation, and recrystallization. Alteration resulting
from these 3 processes may be impossible to correct.
Methods used to evaluate the extent of diagenetic alteration
were compiled by Kohn and Cerling (2002). These methods
include assessing the extent of isotopic heterogeneity or
homogeneity among specimens from a single deposit;
exploiting ecological and associated isotopic differences
among sympatric species; retention of expected inter-tissue
differences in isotopic composition from a single specimen;
changes in bioapatite crystallinity through alteration;
comparison with isotopic composition of surrounding sediments and
cements; and retention of expected correlation between
chemical components of the same tissue (e.g., bioapatite
PO4 and CO3). These authors conclude that enamel, especially
the phosphate component of enamel, is most resistant to
alteration and all other bioapatites, especially bone, should be
considered suspect in specimens from the late Pleistocene or
earlier. However, microbial degradation of organic remains
can facilitate or enhance the alteration of the oxygen isotopic
composition of phosphate in bioapatite
(Zazzo et al. 2004)
Although the low organic content of enamel means it would be
less susceptible to this process, close association with soft
tissues early in the decay process (e.g., organic matter in bone
or dentin) could impact tooth enamel for those species with
thin enamel caps or small teeth through changes in pH and
chemical conditions associated with microbial degradation of
this organic matter. Thus, no bioapatite should be considered
immune from the effects of alteration, and the isotopic
integrity of all materials should be assessed following the
methods listed by Kohn and Cerling (2002) before making any
STABLE ISOTOPE APPLICATIONS TO FOSSIL
Stable isotope analysis is most commonly applied to the
study of fossil mammals as a proxy for paleodietary
information. Paleontologists have taken advantage of naturally
occurring differences in the stable isotopic composition of
various food resources, which are most often derived from
primary producers at the base of the food web. Variation in
physiology (i.e., C3, C4, and crassulacean acid metabolism
[CAM] photosynthetic pathways), uptake of isotopically
distinct materials and nutrients (e.g., atmospheric CO2,
respired CO2, and HCO32), and environmental conditions
can all affect the isotopic composition of different producers
and the consumers that eat them, providing a label for
particular diet types or foraging habits. A thorough discussion
of the relationship between these isotopic labels in diet and
mammalian tissues is presented by Ben-David and Flaherty
(2012) and Mart´ınez del Rio and Carleton (2012). Here, I will
present a few examples of how these relationships, which are
based on studies of modern mammals, have been applied to
the fossil record.
The large carbon isotopic difference between C3 and C4
primary producers has provided 1 of the most widely used and
broadly applied dietary tracers in paleobiological study
(Bocherens et al. 1996; Cerling et al. 1997, 1998; Fox and
Koch 2004; Franz-Odendaal et al. 2002; Koch et al. 1998,
2004; Latorre et al. 1997; MacFadden and Cerling 1996;
MacFadden et al. 1996; Wang et al. 1994; Zazzo et al. 2000)
In low and midlatitude grasslands where C4 grasses are the
dominant grass type today, d13C values of herbivore enamel
record a dramatic increase in consumption of C4 grasses
during the late Miocene
(protracted rise from 8 3 106 to 3 3
106 years ago—Cerling et al. 1997; Edwards et al. 2010;
Tipple and Pagani 2007)
. These mammal fossils provide the
initial evidence for appearances of C4 grass in the past because
macrofossils of the actual grasses are rare
(Nambudiri et al.
1978; Thomasson et al. 1986)
and pollen and phytoliths of
C4 grasses are indistinguishable from those for C3 grasses
. Thus, stable isotope analysis of tooth
enamel from ungulates inferred to have been grazers based on
their high-crowned, or hypsodont, dentition provides a novel
means for constraining the availability and prevalence of C4
grasses in herbivore diets. However, work with extant equids
suggests this proxy may not be suitable for identifying the
earliest presence of C4 grasses in the fossil record
et al. 2004)
In the study by Hoppe et al. (2004), isotopic compositions
of carbon and oxygen of tooth enamel from modern feral
horses were measured from 2 locations: the C3 grasslands of
eastern Oregon (100% C3 grass species) and the C4-dominated
grasslands of New Mexico (.95% C4 grass species). Horses
were selected because of their morphological adaptations for
grass-based diets (e.g., high-crowned teeth) and their long
fossil record in North America (about 55 3 106 years ago), a
point that has made them widely exploited within isotopic
studies of fossil mammals. Based on morphological
characters, equids are commonly viewed as grazers, which would
make them an ideal group to use as proxy for the abundance
and type (C3 compared to C4) of grasses in the past. Careful
examination of fecal samples from these populations showed
that whereas isotopic values for tooth enamel and feces were
in good agreement with the dominant grass types of the
regions (100% C3 in Oregon and 85% C4 in New Mexico), the
actual abundance of grass in the diet was lower
(95% grass in
Oregon and 75% grass in New Mexico—Hoppe et al. 2004)
These results suggest that estimations of proportion of C3 to
C4 grasses based solely on d13C values from fossil equid tooth
enamel could seriously underestimate
overestimate—see Fox and Koch 2000)
the true abundance of C4
grasses. Analysis of whole communities of fossil ungulates,
which would improve the odds of sampling consumers with
purely grass-based diets in combination with other methods
more reflective of relative abundances of grass types and less
prone to bias based on herbivore dietary preferences (e.g.,
carbon isotope analysis of pedogenic carbonates), might be the
one way to get past this limitation.
One of the primary advantages of applying stable isotope
analysis to infer dietary preferences for extinct mammals is
that it allows researchers to make these interpretations
independent of morphology. As noted above, work with
extant mammal species has shown that dietary preferences can
vary considerably among species, even when
morphological characters suggest highly restricted diets. A similar but
more extreme finding was made by paleontologists working in
latest Miocene- to Pliocene-aged fossil deposits of Florida
(MacFadden et al. 1999)
, which have produced fossils from 6
sympatric species of equids. All possessed hypsodont dentition
and were initially interpreted as grazers. Enamel d13C values
for these species in combination with examination of the
microscopic abrasion and attrition of the occlusal surface of
the cheek teeth by food, food-borne grit, and tooth-on-tooth
contact (i.e., microwear), however, revealed that the diets of
these equids were much more diverse (Fig. 2). Microwear for
4 species was consistent with a grass-based diet, but enamel
d13C values showed that the diet for only 1 species
(Neohipparion eurystyle) was primarily C4 grasses, whereas
those for the other 3 species included some C3 grass or browse
as well. Most surprising was the discovery of 2 hypsodont
species (Astrohippus stockii and Dinohippus mexicanus) with
microwear and enamel d13C values indicative of a diet of
C3 browse and little to no grass. Prior to these findings,
paleobiologists assumed that the presence of high-crowned
teeth in a fossil species was strong evidence of a grass-based
diet and this connection had become a paradigm of
paleodietary and ecomorphological research. These findings
showed that this model was not appropriate in all situations
and provided the best example of how stable isotope analysis
could benefit paleobiological research.
Subtle linkages between consumer and producer isotopic
values also have been exploited to examine how the
environmental conditions experienced by mammal
communities have shifted over time
(Bump et al. 2007)
. The carbon
isotopic composition of primary producers can fluctuate in
response to changes in the growth environment (e.g., light
intensity, [CO2], and water availability) and, if these changes
are sustained over long stretches of time, can result in a
distinct isotopic shift that can be passed on to consumers
foraging within the community. Because herbivorous and
carnivorous mammals sample multiple plant and prey types,
respectively, over the course of their lifetimes, the isotopic
composition of their tissues maintains a running average of the
baseline isotopic composition of a food web. The spatial and
temporal integration of this isotopic information increases
with trophic level, ultimately reducing variation, and
improving the signal-to-noise ratio of isotopic, and therefore
environmental, change within a community. Bump et al.
(2007) demonstrated this in their examination of d13C values
for primary producers (cellulose from pine [Pinus flexilis]
needles and juniper [Juniperus] wood), herbivores (bone
collagen from bison [Bison antiquus]), and carnivores (bone
collagen from dire wolves [Canis dirus]) from the Great Basin
and La Brea tar pit over the period 12–30 3 103 years ago
(Fig. 3A). These isotopic records were then compared by
Bump et al. (2007) to temporal changes in atmospheric [CO2]
over the same time interval that had been recovered from ice
core records (Fig. 3B), which document a significant increase
in [CO2] after the Last Glacial Maximum. Increased
atmospheric [CO2] provides a greater carbon pool for primary
producers to use during photosynthesis, which in turn enables
them to more strongly discriminate against the heavier isotope
of carbon (13C). As a result, primary producer d13C values
would be expected to drop during periods of elevated
atmospheric [CO2]. This effect is evident in the findings of
Bump et al. (2007), where mean d13C values for producers and
consumers show a significant decrease in d13C values at 15–12
3 103 years ago (Fig. 3A), which corresponds with the interval
of increasing [CO2]. These results demonstrate how
environmental perturbations experienced at the base of the food web
can be propagated up through higher trophic levels. In
addition, reduced variation in the isotopic signal of the
carnivores included in this study suggests that these consumers
may be better proxies for this type of information than
organisms that are more routinely sampled (i.e., fossil
ungulates). This implies that predator-trap deposits such as
the tar pits at La Brea may provide more ecosystem-level
information than previously thought.
In addition to assessing isotopic differences at the
ecosystem or species level, stable isotope analysis of tooth
enamel can be applied to questions of biological or ecological
change within a single individual through the process of serial
(Fricke and O’Neil 1996; Higgins and MacFadden
2004; Koch et al. 1989; Kohn et al. 1998; Passey and Cerling
2002; Zazzo et al. 2010)
. The usefulness of enamel stems from
its formation via accretion along the tooth surface over a
limited duration of time during an animal’s life. Once formed,
the stable isotope composition of enamel remains fixed (i.e.,
enamel is no longer metabolized by the body), providing a
nearly continuous stable isotope record that may cover a
period of months to years and can be retained for millions of
years after fossilization
(Lee-Thorp and van der Merwe 1987;
Wang and Cerling 1994)
. Sequential sampling of distinct
enamel layers within teeth can provide information on dietary
and habitat change over the course of an individual’s
development from juvenile to adult as well as seasonal
variation in these ecological parameters later in the animal’s
life. Preservation of these temporal differences in isotopic
values in fossilized tooth enamel has an added benefit for
paleontologists in that the differences also provide a means to
assess the quality of preservation. As noted above, extensive
alteration of fossil materials tends to homogenize stable
isotopic values among and within specimens
. Preservation of strong, temporal oscillations in
stable isotopic values of fossilized teeth can therefore be used
as another check on the isotopic integrity of fossil specimens.
Three studies of fossil proboscideans, that is elephants and
their extinct relatives
(Fox and Fisher 2004; Hoppe et al. 1999;
Rountrey et al. 2007)
, highlight how serial sampling of tooth
material can be used to answer very different questions about
the ecology and life history of these animals (Fig. 4).
Proboscideans represent one of the best groups of mammals
to examine with this technique because of the large size of
their teeth, which means that growth layers accreted within
them will be easily identifiable, and the modification of the
incisors into large, ever-growing tusks, which can record large
amounts of information over the lifetime of an individual.
These physical characters evolved very early within this order
(earliest appearance: late Paleocene, approximately 60 3
106 years ago), which means that serial sampling can be used
to examine the ecological history of this group early on in its
Serial samples of enamel from the upper tusks of 17
individuals of the proboscidean Gomphotherium productum
from across the Great Plains of North America were analyzed
by Fox and Fisher (2004) to determine the feeding ecology of
this species and constrain the environmental conditions it
experienced during the middle to late Miocene (about 15–8 3
106 years ago; Fig. 4A). Unlike living elephants, which have
tusks composed solely of dentin, tusks of G. productum and
other gomphotheres maintained a band of enamel that ran
along the lateral margin of the tusk, making them suitable for
stable isotope analysis at this timescale. A distance of 2.5–
4.5 cm was sampled along each tusk, which corresponds to a
maximum of 1 year of the individual’s life
Enamel d13C profiles along the tusk for each individual
indicated a diet consisting of C3 vegetation, either all browse
or a mix of browse and C3 grasses. These values cluster at the
upper extreme for a C3 consumer
(assuming an enamel to diet
isotope discrimination of 14.1% 6 0.5%—Cerling and Harris
, indicating that these individuals foraged in partially
open, possibly arid conditions and would have favored
woodlands rather than deep forests. Variation in d13C values
along the tusk was minor, which suggests that diets did not
vary much seasonally, or at least that this variation could not
be determined by stable isotope analysis. Oxygen isotope
values also varied little along the tusk (approximately 1.5%),
but did cycle from high to low and back to high d18O values,
most likely reflecting seasonal changes in local precipitation
FIG. 4.—Stable isotope values for serially sampled teeth (tusks and
molars) from 3 extinct proboscidean species, showing A) late
Miocene gomphothere Gomphotherium productum
d13C and d18O values—Fox and Fisher 2004)
; B) late Pleistocene
mastodon Mammut americanum (molar enamel 87Sr/86Sr values—
Hoppe et al. 1999); and C) a juvenile late Pleistocene mammoth
(tusk dentin collagen d13C and d15N
values—Rountrey et al. 2007)
. Solid and dashed lines connect
sequential samples taken from incremental growth layers of enamel
or dentin in the tusk or molar. In panel B, gray shaded region marks
expected range in 87Sr/86Sr values for consumers foraging in Florida.
Carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen isotope values are referenced to the
international standards Vienna PeeDee Belemnite (VPDB),
atmospheric air (AIR), and Vienna Standard Mean Ocean Water
and temperature (high d18O values 5 warm-season rains; low
d18O 5 cool-season rains). These changes imply that seasonal
changes in precipitation did not correspond with seasonal
changes in availability of C3 vegetation. Lack of significant
differences or an apparent trend in d13C and d18O values
among individuals of G. productum sampled from different
times and locations implies that environmental conditions in
the Great Plains did not change or degrade significantly from
15 to 8 3 106 years ago, and the woodland habitats preferred
by G. productum were available throughout this time interval.
Spatial variation in the isotopic composition of prey species
(Hobson and Schell 1998; Schell et al. 1998)
(Chamberlain et al. 1997; Marra et al. 1998)
exploited to track the movements of living marine and
terrestrial animals, and a similar approach can be employed
to track the movements of fossil mammals in the past. Serial
sampling of a much younger (latest Pleistocene) proboscidean
species was performed by Hoppe et al. (1999) to determine
how range size and migration patterns of late Pleistocene
proboscideans in North America may have been impacted
by changing environmental conditions at the end of the
Pleistocene (Fig. 4B). Using geographic variation in the ratio
of strontium isotopic (87Sr/86Sr) composition of local bedrock,
soils, and plants, Hoppe et al. (1999) created an isotopic map
of the southeastern United States (Florida and Georgia).
Unlike other isotope systems, the mass difference between
strontium isotopes (87Sr and 86Sr) is too small relative to the
atomic mass of the element to permit measurable biological
fractionation (Price et al. 1985). Thus, the strontium isotopic
composition of producers and consumers tracks that of the
local soils and bedrocks where they live without any variation
due to trophic level
(see Ben-David and Flaherty 2012 for
. However, movement between regions with
distinct 87Sr/86Sr values would result in oscillations in the
values recorded in accreted tissues (i.e., tooth enamel), and
could then be used to track the seasonal movements of
individuals between these areas. Serial sampling of tooth
enamel from the mastodon Mammut americanum showed
significant variation in the 87Sr/86Sr values along the crown of
the tooth (0.7078–0.7121). The majority of these values
exceeded the range of measured 87Sr/86Sr values for plants
sampled from Florida, suggesting these animals were moving
considerable distances (approximately 120 to approximately
300 km 1 way) during the year and may have been migrating
from coastal areas to upland regions in central Georgia. This
implies that home ranges for these animals were quite large
and may have been significantly greater than those of living
(Cerling et al. 2006; Thomas et al. 2008)
calculations of these home ranges from historical observations
and current field studies are most likely underestimates, given
restrictions in accessible habitat today.
In addition to evidence of seasonal diets and migration,
serial sampling of accreted biogenic materials from
proboscideans also has been used to infer other life-history
information, such as the timing of nursing and weaning
(Rountrey et al. 2007)
. Consumption of milk by young
mammals leaves a distinct isotopic label in the d13C, d15N, and
d18O values of accreted tissues
(Hobson and Sease 1998;
Newsome et al. 2006; Wright and Schwarcz 1998)
they are effectively feeding 1 trophic level above that of their
mother and therefore go through an additional isotopic
discrimination. For collagen in tooth dentin, d15N values best
reflect this effect as the isotopic discrimination factor with
trophic level is quite large at about 3.0%
(Schoeninger et al.
. Examination of the d15N profiles from the tusk of a
juvenile woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) by
Rountrey et al. (2007) shows a cyclical pattern that is
consistent with seasonal shifts in its diet and that of its
mother (as reflected in her milk; Fig. 4C). This pattern is
mirrored in the d13C values as well. However, the d15N values
also show a steady drop in maximum values during each cycle,
which the authors have interpreted as reflecting a steady
decrease in the contribution of maternal milk to the diet of the
juvenile. This suggests a prolonged weaning period for
mammoth calves, which, based on counting the number of
cycles recorded in the tusk, would have occurred over a period
of 4 years. Given that the tip of this specimen was lost, the
authors estimate that about 1–1.5 years are missing from the
record, which would suggest weaning occurred over a period
of at least 5 years. The weaning period for living elephants is
typically shorter (approximately 3.5 years), but maternal
investment in the calf can be extended to as long as 5.6 years
under stressful conditions
(Lee and Moss 1986)
interpretation of a prolonged period of weaning ( 5 years)
is consistent with environmental reconstructions for this time
period (late Pleistocene) and location (Wrangel Island,
Siberia). Harsh climatic conditions at the end of the last ice
age may have required female mammoths to expend more
energy and time rearing each calf, which would have reduced
the number of calves that could be produced within the
lifetime of a female. This reduction in fitness may have
increased the sensitivity of this species to predation, increasing
their susceptibility to extinction from intense hunting pressure.
FUTURE DIRECTIONS AND APPLICATIONS
The application of stable isotope analysis to paleontological
research is primarily driven by new advances in techniques
and instrumentation. As the precision and sensitivity improve
for isotope ratio mass spectrometers, smaller sample amounts
are measurable and smaller isotopic differences in mass can be
assessed, which opens up entire new isotope systems and fossil
materials for study. Here, I list a few recent developments
in stable isotope analysis as applied to paleobiology and
emphasize those that have the most promise for future fossil
An established technique that has only recently gained
interest in the paleontological community is laser ablation of
(Cerling and Sharp 1996; Passey and Cerling 2006;
Sponheimer et al. 2006)
. In this method, the surface of the
sample is heated rapidly using a thermal laser, which creates a
series of small pits on the surface and produces CO2 by
thermal breakdown of the carbonate and phosphate
components in the enamel
(Cerling and Sharp 1996)
. A major benefit
of this method is that it is less destructive than traditional
methods of isotopic sampling, which involve low-precision
drilling of tooth surfaces. Laser ablation also requires much
smaller quantities of enamel to yield enough CO2 for each
analysis (,1.0 mg compared to .5.0 mg for traditional
sampling methods). This reduction in sample size makes
fossilized teeth from small mammals (e.g., rodents and
insectivores) available for analysis and opens up a whole
new level of isotopic research within ancient communities.
Likewise, extremely rare and scientifically significant
specimens for which paleodietary information is vital
hominines—Sponheimer et al. 2006)
can now be considered
for isotopic analysis as well. Caveats for this method include
reduced accuracy in d18O analysis relative to conventional
methods and significant isotopic fractionation associated with
gas–surface interactions during analysis of large teeth, which
experience a greater blank effect than small teeth as a result of
their enhanced adsorption of residual CO2 from previous laser
ablations on their outer surface
(Passey and Cerling 2006)
Even with these concerns, this method offers considerable
advantages for paleobiologists working with small or rare
Although most applications to paleontology have relied on
analysis of whole tissues (soft or mineralized), there is
growing interest in analyzing individual organic compounds
that may be retained within fossilized remains.
Compoundspecific stable isotope analysis is increasingly used to analyze
(O’Brien et al. 1998; Popp et al. 2007)
as ancient human remains (Fogel and Tuross 2003) but has
yet to be applied extensively to the field of paleontology
(Clementz et al. 2000; CoBabe and Pratt 1995; Stott et al.
. Compounds of interest could include individual amino
acids, which can be separated from bone collagen, and lipid
molecules (e.g., fatty acids and sterols), which adhere to the
outer surface of pore spaces and channels in bones and teeth or
have been entrained in bioapatite during biomineralization
(CoBabe and Pratt 1995)
. Exceptional cases of preservation of
fatty acids, amino acids, and sterols within fossilized bones
and teeth have been reported, and the stable isotopic
composition of these compounds have been determined and
used to infer ecological information from these specimens
(Clementz et al. 2003c; Evershed et al. 1995; Stott et al. 1997)
Through careful treatment and chemical extraction, organic
molecules can be isolated from fossils and analyzed using gas or
liquid chromatography linked to isotope ratio mass
spectrometers. Individual amino acids are thought to be primarily
restricted to relatively young fossil materials (,105 years),
whereas lipids have been successfully recovered from much
older (.106 years ago) remains of fossil invertebrates
and Pratt 1995)
and fossil vertebrates
(Clementz et al. 2000,
. Analyses of these compounds can be beneficial to
paleontological studies because the isotopic compositions of
these compounds provide a means of discriminating between
protein and carbohydrate contribution to omnivore paleodiets
(as evident from analysis of individual amino acids), and can be
used to identify unique diet sources through identification and
analysis of distinct biomarkers and essential components that
consumers are incapable of producing on their own and must
therefore solely come from diet
(lipids and individual amino
acids—Evershed et al. 1995)
. This method of analysis
significantly expands the potential paleodietary information
that can be extracted from a single specimen.
From a paleontological standpoint, a further benefit of this
method is that many of these compounds may be produced by
only a small number of organisms, which reduces the chances
of contamination by external sources and provides a means for
assessing isotopic integrity. For instance, cholesterol is a
steroidal lipid that is not produced in significant quantities by
plants, microbes, or most fungi, but is found in relatively high
FIG. 5.—Comparison of calcium isotope values (d44Ca) for tooth
enamel from modern and fossil marine mammals
(Clementz et al.
relative to that of present-day and Miocene-aged seawater
(Griffith et al. 2008)
. Enamel values for modern marine consumers
(herbivore: sirenian Dugong dugon; carnivore: cetacean Phocoena
phocoena) and Miocene-aged fossils of marine consumers (herbivore:
sirenian Dusisiren jordani; carnivore: unidentified small odontocete)
were initially reported in Clementz et al. (2003a). Each symbol
represents a single specimen and vertical bars represent analytical
error associated with a single series of analyses on an instrument.
abundance in vertebrate remains. As long as potential
contamination from handling is minimized, cholesterol
extracted from fossil remains should be original and should
not have been introduced postmortem. The stable isotopes of
carbon have been the primary target of analysis for most of
these compounds, but hydrogen isotope analysis of lipids (i.e.,
fatty acids and sterols) as well as analysis of hydrogen,
nitrogen, oxygen, and sulfur isotopes in amino acids also is
possible. Continued interest in this area will, we hope,
promote further exploration of the utility of these other
isotope systems for paleoecological information.
Biological fractionation of stable calcium isotopes (40Ca,
42Ca, 43Ca, 44Ca, 46Ca, and 48Ca) was 1st identified by Skulan et
al. (1997) as part of a study in which they sampled an assortment
of modern terrestrial and marine organisms, both vertebrates
and invertebrates, and noted a significant drop in d44Ca values
with increasing trophic level. Since this initial observation,
application of d44Ca analysis to biological and paleobiological
research has primarily focused on the calcium isotope
composition of marine microfossils, which can serve as a proxy
for temperature or calcium cycling in the ocean over long
(Bohm et al. 2006; De La Rocha and DePaolo 2000;
Gussone et al. 2005; Sime et al. 2005; Zhu and Macdougall
. However, a few studies also have explored the way this
isotope system can be applied to paleodietary interpretations of
organisms within ancient ecosystems, specifically as a proxy
for trophic level information
(Clementz et al. 2003a; Reynard
et al. 2010; Skulan and DePaolo 1999; Skulan et al. 1997)
Work on modern and fossil marine mammals by Clementz
et al. (2003a) supported earlier results by Skulan et al. (1997),
which showed a significant drop in d44Ca values with trophic
level (Fig. 5). However, the authors acknowledged that this
drop also could reflect differences in prey type, separating
consumers that foraged on soft-bodied prey or vegetation from
those that consumed vertebrate prey. Because biological
fractionation of calcium isotopes relative to diet is mainly
restricted to mineralization
(Skulan and DePaolo 1999)
softtissue d44Ca values show little offset relative to that of diet,
which implies that unless consumers ingest significant
quantities of the hard parts from their prey, consumer tissues
should show little to no fractionation with trophic level. This
interpretation is supported by Reynard et al. (2010), who
examined bones from archaeological remains of domesticated
species, humans, and a few wild species of mammalian
carnivores and herbivores and found little to no correlation
between d44Ca values and trophic level. Because consumption
of skeletal remains of prey species by predators (including
humans) was minimal, lack of fractionation with trophic level
could reflect this difference between soft and mineralized
tissues in prey species. Although a complete understanding of
the factors controlling the calcium isotope composition of
mammal tissues is needed, d44Ca values in fossil mammals
still hold considerable promise as a paleodietary proxy for
extinct species in deep time (.106 years ago).
Clumped isotope analysis may represent the most novel and
recent development in geochemical analysis of fossil mammal
(Eagle et al. 2010)
. Clumped isotope values (D47) are
defined as the difference between the measured abundance of
the CO2 molecules of mass 47 (mostly 13C18O16O, but a small
amount of 12C18O17O and 13C17O17O) and the expected
abundance for the molecule of that mass assuming a stochastic
(Huntington et al. 2009)
. Within carbonates and the
carbonate component of other minerals (e.g., bioapatite), the
tendency of heavy isotopes of carbon (13C) and oxygen (18O) to
form bonds, or ‘‘clump,’’ with each other is strongly affected by
the temperature of mineralization, but not by the isotopic
composition of the system
(for more detailed information on
this method see Eiler et al.  and Huntington et al. )
This creates a natural thermometer that can be broadly applied
within geological research, including the estimation of body
temperature in extinct vertebrates. Eagle et al. (2010) evaluated
the fidelity of this method by analyzing fossilized enamel and
dentin from late Pleistocene–aged mammoth teeth recovered
from the Rhine River valley and the North Sea. Enamel D47
values for mammoth teeth from each site corresponded to
estimated body temperatures and were statistically
indistinguishable (Rhine River: 39.1uC 6 2.8uC; North Sea: 36.8uC 6
1.3uC) and within close agreement to average body
temperatures for extant large mammals (approximately 37uC). This
technique holds promise as a paleothermometer for extinct
species as well as providing an additional way to evaluate the
isotopic integrity of fossil materials. However, current
application to most paleobiological research is restricted by the
considerable amounts of sample (100–200 mg) and time (3–4 h
per sample) required for each analysis, which is significantly
greater than the amounts of sample (1–2 mg) and time
(approximately 10 min) typically used for traditional isotope
measurements of bioapatites. Further refinement of this
technique is necessary before it can be used extensively in
Paleontologists have undoubtedly benefited from stable
isotope analysis of fossil mammal remains. In addition to
providing information on paleodiets of extinct organisms, this
technique also has offered insight into seasonal movements,
habitat preferences, physiology, and life histories for species,
all of which complement and extend the information available
from other more traditional methods of paleontological
research (e.g., morphology and depositional setting).
Continued study of modern systems by ecologists (and some
paleontologists) has further improved the utility of these
proxies by providing much needed baseline information on the
factors that influence isotopic composition of mammalian
tissues. New methods of analysis (compound-specific isotope
ratio mass spectrometry and laser ablation) and isotope
systems (calcium isotopes and D47 values) are expanding the
range of applications within this field as well as increasing the
types and number of fossil specimens appropriate for this type
The content of this paper benefited greatly from countless
discussions with colleagues in paleontology, ecology, and
geochemistry, with special thanks to P. L. Koch, D. L. Fox, K. L. Fox-Dobbs,
G. J. Bowen, J. C. Zachos, B. J. MacFadden, N. L. Tuross, and T. E.
Cerling as well as the long list of cited authors who provided the
material for this review. J. P. Whiteman, M. Ben-David, D. L. Fox,
and an anonymous reviewer provided helpful comments, which
significantly improved the composition of this paper. Support for the
research and writing of this paper was provided by a grant from the
National Science Foundation (EAR 0847413).
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