Fossilised gerbil teeth can shed light on past climates

Amy Jeffrey, Christiane Denys, Emmanuelle Stoetzel, Julia A. Lee-Thorp (2015) Influences on the stable oxygen and carbon isotopes in gerbillid rodent teeth in semi-arid and arid environments: Implications for past climate and environmental reconstruction Earth and Planetary Science Letters 428, doi:10.1016/j.epsl.2015.07.012


The stable isotope composition of small mammal tissues has the potential to provide detailed information about terrestrial palaeoclimate and environments, because their remains are abundant in palaeontological and archaeological sites, and they have restricted home ranges. Applications to the Quaternary record, however, have been sparse and limited by an acute lack of understanding of small mammal isotope ecology, particularly in arid and semi-arid environments. Here we document the oxygen and carbon isotope composition of Gerbillinae (gerbil) tooth apatite across a rainfall gradient in northwestern Africa, in order to test the relative influences of the 18O/16O in precipitation or moisture availability on gerbil teeth values, the sensitivity of tooth apatite 13C/12C to plant responses to moisture availability, and the influence of developmental period on the isotopic composition of gerbil molars and incisors. The results show that the isotopic composition of molars and incisors from the same individuals differs consistent with the different temporal periods reflected by the teeth; molar teeth are permanently rooted and form around the time of birth, whereas incisors grow continuously. The results indicate that tooth choice is an important consideration for applications as proxy Quaternary records, but also highlights a new potential means to distinguish seasonal contexts. The oxygen isotope composition of gerbil tooth apatite is strongly correlated with mean annual precipitation (MAP) below 600 mm, but above 600 mm the teeth reflect the oxygen isotope composition of local meteoric water instead. Predictably, the carbon isotope composition of the gerbil teeth reflected C3 and C4 dietary inputs, however arid and mesic sites could not be distinguished because of the high variability displayed in the carbon isotope composition of the teeth due to the microhabitat and short temporal period reflected by the gerbil. We show that the oxygen isotope composition of small mammal teeth strongly reflects moisture availability in semi-arid and arid environments and would provide an excellent record of palaeo-aridity in a terrestrial setting. The results illustrate that an understanding of an animal’s physiology is essential for interpreting the animal’s isotopic responses to external contexts, especially in arid zones.