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Quaternary record of aridity and mean annual precipitation based on δ15N in ratite and dromornithid eggshells from Lake Eyre, Australia


The cause(s) of the late Pleistocene megafauna extinction on the Australian continent remains largely unresolved. Unraveling climatic forcing mechanisms from direct or indirect human agents of ecosystem alteration has proven to be extremely difficult in Australia due to the lack of (1) well-dated vertebrate fossils and (2) paleo-environmental and -ecological records spanning the past approximately 100 ka when regional climatic conditions are known to have significantly varied. We have examined the nitrogen isotope composition (δ15N) of modern emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) eggshells collected along a precipitation gradient in Australia, along with modern climatological data and dietary δ15N values. We then used modern patterns to interpret an approximately 130-ka record of δ15N values in extant Dromaius and extinct Genyornis newtoni eggshells from Lake Eyre to obtain a novel mean annual precipitation (MAP) record for central Australia spanning the extinction interval. Our data also provide the first detailed information on the trophic ecology and environmental preferences of two closely related taxa, one extant and one extinct. Dromaius eggshell δ15N values show a significant shift to higher values during the Last Glacial Maximum and Holocene, which we interpret to indicate more frequent arid conditions (<200 mm MAP), relative to δ15N from samples just prior to the megafauna extinction. Genyornis eggshells had δ15N values reflecting wetter nesting conditions overall relative to those of coeval Dromaius, perhaps indicating that Genyornis was more reliant on mesic conditions. Lastly, the Dromaius eggshell record shows a significant decrease in δ13C values prior to the extinction, whereas the Genyornis record does not. Neither species showed a concomitant change in δ15N prior to the extinction, which suggests that a significant change in vegetation surrounding Lake Eyre occurred prior to an increase in local aridity.

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The following assisted in the collection, preservation, identification, and isotopic analysis of the Australian modern plant and animal collections: C Swarth, E Swarth, D Swarth, P Latz, B Johnson, M Wooller, A Barelli, M Fantle, E Snyder, C Mancuso, and W Wurzel. We thank S deVogel, C Florian, and S Clarke for many of the organic eggshell analyses. This project was funded by National Science Foundation grants to ML Fogel and GH Miller (ATM-0502491), and an ARC grant to JW Magee. SD Newsome was also partially funded by the W.M. Keck Foundation (072000) and the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

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Correspondence to Seth D. Newsome.

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Communicated by Jim Ehleringer.

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Newsome, S.D., Miller, G.H., Magee, J.W. et al. Quaternary record of aridity and mean annual precipitation based on δ15N in ratite and dromornithid eggshells from Lake Eyre, Australia. Oecologia 167, 1151–1162 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-011-2046-5

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  • Pleistocene extinction
  • δ15N
  • δ13C
  • Genyornis newtoni
  • Dromaius novaehollandiae