, Volume 171, Issue 2, pp 403-416
Date: 23 Aug 2012

Kangaroo tooth enamel oxygen and carbon isotope variation on a latitudinal transect in southern Australia: implications for palaeoenvironmental reconstruction

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Abstract

Tooth enamel apatite carbonate carbon and oxygen isotope ratios of modern kangaroos (Macropus spp.) collected on a 900-km latitudinal transect spanning a C3–C4 transition zone were analysed to create a reference set for palaeoenvironmental reconstruction in southern Australia. The carbon isotope composition of enamel carbonate reflects the proportional intake of C3 and C4 vegetation, and its oxygen isotope composition reflects that of ingested water. Tooth enamel forms incrementally, recording dietary and environmental changes during mineralisation. Analyses show only weak correlations between climate records and latitudinal changes in δ13C and δ18O. No species achieved the δ13C values (~−1.0 ‰) expected for 100 % C4 grazing diets; kangaroos at low latitudes that are classified as feeding primarily on C4 grasses (grazers) have δ13C of up to −3.5 ‰. In these areas, δ13C below −12 ‰ suggests a 100 % C3 grass and/or leafy plant (browse) diet while animals from higher latitude have lower δ13C. Animals from semi-arid areas have δ18O of 34–40 ‰, while grazers from temperate areas have lower values (~28–30 ‰). Three patterns with implications for palaeoenvironmental reconstruction emerge: (1) all species in semi-arid areas regularly browse to supplement limited grass resources; (2) all species within an environmental zone have similar carbon and oxygen isotope compositions, meaning data from different kangaroo species can be pooled for palaeoenvironmental investigations; (3) relatively small regional environmental differences can be distinguished when δ13C and δ18O data are used together. These data demonstrate that diet–isotope and climate–isotope relationships should be evaluated in modern ecosystems before application to the regional fossil record.

Communicated by Dan Yakir.