Abstract

Isotope analysis of a bulk fossil tooth gives a “snapshot” impression of paleoclimatic conditions—a single point in time. However, hypsodont teeth grow over a period of a year or more, so that stable carbon and oxygen isotope variations along their length are a “tape recorder” of short-term seasonal variations from the distant past. We have used a new in situ micro-laser sampling method to determine submillimeter carbon and oxygen isotope variations in the enamel of individual fossil horse teeth to assess ancient annual meteoric water variations and feeding patterns. The δ18O values from a 6.8 Ma fossil horse tooth (Astrohippus ansae) from Texas vary cyclically along the 6 cm length of the tooth with a smoothed amplitude of >4‰, similar to the monthly averaged amplitude measured in modern meteoric waters from the region. The seasonal δ18O values are ∼3‰ to 4‰ higher than those calculated from modern meteoric water data, suggesting either a higher local meteoric water value in the Miocene of Texas, or that the animal received a high proportion of its dietary water from plants or highly evaporated water. A Holocene horse tooth from the shores of Glacial Lake Agassiz, North Dakota (Equus sp.), also has isotopic variations with the same 35 mm periodicity, but a smoothed amplitude of only 2‰. This horse most likely had a buffered drinking supply. The calculated δ18O of the water in equilibrium with this tooth is the same as the modern measured annual average. The variations within a single tooth can be as large as those generally observed in entire stratigraphic sections of fossil teeth analyzed by bulk methods. The new method provides an important technique for evaluating fossil diagenesis; conventional bulk analyses of teeth fragments may not be representative of the whole tooth, thus explaining analytical scatter that has been previously attributed to diagenesis.

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