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Free fatty acids in Lake Aydat catchment soils (French Massif Central): sources, distributions and potential use as sediment biomarkers

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Eighteen soils were sampled in the Lake Aydat catchment in order to analyse free fatty acid (FA) content; FAs are considered to be among the most amenable biomarkers to mobilisation by runoff waters. The majority of the study area has soil cover consisting of grasslands or forest since the 2nd World War, although some covers having changed more recently.

Material and methods

The soil studied all developed on volcanic rocks (andisols). The bulk organic matter (OM) content of the samples was characterized by Rock-Eval (RE) pyrolysis. The FAs were determined by gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC-MS) analysis of isolated and derivatized (methylation and trimethylsilylation) FA fractions.

Results and discussion

Few low molecular weight compounds (LMW; i.e., <C20) were detected; FA distributions were dominated by even numbered-carbon high molecular weight (HMW; ≥C20) normal FAs and difunctionalized FAs that included: dicarboxylic acids (diFAs), n-alkylcarboxylic acids (nFAs), and α- and ω-hydroxycarboxylic acids (αHOFAs and ωHOFAs). The distributions and abundances of HMW terms of all families (which can be all considered as representative of terrestrial OM source) displayed only slight differences. These differences were rationalized by the following ratios: (C26:0 + C28:0)/ΣCeven nFAs, C22/C24 di-FAs, and C20−/C20+ω-HOFAs). Soils from areas that had changed use recently consistently displayed intermediate ratio values typical of their double inheritance. All grassland soils and some samples from intermediate areas contained notable amounts of the bile acid deoxycholic acid that testifies to their present or recent use for cattle breeding.


Despite the variety and the abundance of all HMW FAs in soils, work done previously on Lake Aydat sediments found only nFAs (Stefanova, M. and Disnar, J. R. 2000. Composition and early diagenesis of FAs in lacustrine sediments, Lake Aydat (France). Org Geochem 31, 41–55). These results suggest we should question the importance of the watershed contribution, the source (plant or soil) and mode of transportation of the FAs to the lake sediments.

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This work received financial support from the ERODE (EC2CO, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique/Institut National des Sciences de l’Univers) and OTARIE (Région Centre) projects. M. L. also acknowledges the Région Centre for attribution of PhD grant. E. Rowley-Jolivet is greatly thanked for corrections to the English. The authors also wish to thank Ellen L. Petticrew, University of Northern British Columbia, Prince George, Canada, and an anonymous reviewer their constructive comments.

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Correspondence to Renata Zocatelli.

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Zocatelli, R., Lavrieux, M., Disnar, J. et al. Free fatty acids in Lake Aydat catchment soils (French Massif Central): sources, distributions and potential use as sediment biomarkers. J Soils Sediments 12, 734–748 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11368-012-0505-1

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  • Biomarkers
  • Conifer
  • Fatty acids
  • French Massif Central
  • Grassland
  • Sediments
  • Soils