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Seasonality of precipitation in the southwestern United States during the late Pleistocene inferred from stable isotopes in herbivore tooth enamel

October 13, 2022

The late Pleistocene was a climatically dynamic period, with abrupt shifts between cool-wet and warm-dry conditions. Increased effective precipitation supported large pluvial lakes and long-lived spring ecosystems in valleys and basins throughout the western and southwestern U.S., but the source and seasonality of the increased precipitation are debated. Increases in the proportions of C4/(C4+ C3) grasses in the diets of large grazers have been ascribed both to increases in summer precipitation and lower atmospheric CO2 levels. Here we present stable carbon and oxygen isotope data from tooth enamel of late Pleistocene herbivores recovered from paleowetland deposits at Tule Spring Fossil Beds National Monument in the Las Vegas Valley of southern Nevada, as well as modern herbivores from the surrounding area. We use these data to investigate whether winter or summer precipitation was responsible for driving the relatively wet hydroclimate conditions that prevailed in the region during the late Pleistocene. We also evaluate whether late Pleistocene grass C4/(C4+ C3) was higher than today, and potential drivers of any changes.

Tooth enamel δ18O values for Pleistocene Equus, Bison, and Mammuthus are generally low (average 22.0 ± 0.7‰, 2 s.e., VSMOW) compared to modern equids (27.8 ± 1.5‰), and imply lower water δ18O values (−16.1 ± 0.8‰) than modern precipitation (−10.5‰) or in waters present in active springs and wells in the Las Vegas Valley (−12.9‰), an area dominated by winter precipitation. In contrast, tooth enamel of Camelops (a browser) generally yielded higher δ18O values (23.9 ± 1.1‰), possibly suggesting drought tolerance. Mean δ13C values for the Pleistocene grazers (−6.6 ± 0.7‰, 2 s.e., VPDB) are considerably higher than for modern equids (−9.6 ± 0.4‰) and indicate more consumption of C4 grass (17 ± 5%) than today (4 ± 4%). However, calculated C4 grass consumption in the late Pleistocene is strikingly lower than the proportion of C4 grass taxa currently present in the valley (55–60%). δ13C values in Camelops tooth enamel (−7.7 ± 1.0‰) are interpreted as reflecting moderate consumption (14 ± 8%) of Atriplex (saltbush), a C4 shrub that flourishes in regions with hot, dry summers.

Lower water δ18O values, lower abundance of C4 grasses, and the inferred presence of Atriplex are all consistent with general circulation models for the late Pleistocene that show enhanced delivery of winter precipitation, sourced from the north Pacific, into the interior western U.S. but do not support alternative models that infer enhanced delivery of summer precipitation, sourced from the tropics. In addition, we hypothesize that dietary competition among the diverse and abundant Pleistocene fauna may have driven the grazers analyzed here to feed preferentially on C4 grasses. Dietary partitioning, especially when combined with decreased pCO2 levels during the late Pleistocene, can explain the relatively high δ13C values observed in late Pleistocene grazers in the Las Vegas Valley and elsewhere in the southwestern U.S. without requiring additional summer precipitation. Pleistocene hydroclimate parameters derived from dietary and floral records may need to be reevaluated in the context of the potential effects of dietary preferences and lower pCO2 levels on the stability of C3 vs. C4 plants.

Publication Year 2022
Title Seasonality of precipitation in the southwestern United States during the late Pleistocene inferred from stable isotopes in herbivore tooth enamel
DOI 10.1016/j.quascirev.2022.107784
Authors Matthew J. Kohn, Kathleen B. Springer, Jeffrey S. Pigati, Linda Reynard, Amanda E. Drewicz, Justin Crevier, Eric Scott
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Quaternary Science Reviews
Index ID 70237557
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Geosciences and Environmental Change Science Center