Molluscan death assemblages occurring on present-day beaches frequently consist of secondary-colored shells, with yellow to brown and gray to black colors. It is hypothesized that this secondary coloration can be related to postmortem age and to conditions in the taphonomically active zone, altering shells to black and gray tones in reducing conditions, and then becoming yellowish or brownish in oxidizing settings. In this study, we assessed whether the variability in the degree of shell discoloration of two species of the infaunal bivalve Mactra collected in beach death assemblages from a temperate siliciclastic beach in Uruguay is a function of postmortem age, and whether this variability in discoloration can be linked to differences in their elemental composition, microstructure, and provenance. Although we did not detect any differences in mineralogy or elemental composition among shells differing in discoloration, we show that modern (younger than a century) beach shells are not secondary-colored, but have remained white, but some white shells are also old (millennial). In contrast, yellow and gray shells are consistently older than 1,000 years, indicating that this degree of discoloration requires millennial residence times in the taphonomically active zone and suggesting that discoloration can be used as an indicator of time averaging. Discolored shells are derived from subtidal death assemblages.

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