Field of Science

Can We Actually Determine the Thermophysiology of Extinct Animals as well as the Paleoclimate from Fossil Bones?

Eaglea, R. A.,  Schaubleb, E. A., Tripatia, A. K., Tütkend, T., Hulbert, R. C., and J. M. Eiler. 2010. temperatures of modern and extinct vertebrates from 13C-18O bond abundances in bioapatite. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Published online before print May 24, 2010, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0911115107 

Abstract - The stable isotope compositions of biologically precipitated apatite in bone, teeth, and scales are widely used to obtain information on the diet, behavior, and physiology of extinct organisms and to reconstruct past climate. Here we report the application of a new type of geochemical measurement to bioapatite, a “clumped-isotope” paleothermometer, based on the thermodynamically driven preference for 13C and 18O to bond with each other within carbonate ions in the bioapatite crystal lattice. This effect is dependent on temperature but, unlike conventional stable isotope paleothermometers, is independent from the isotopic composition of water from which the mineral formed. We show that the abundance of 13C-18O bonds in the carbonate component of tooth bioapatite from modern specimens decreases with increasing body temperature of the animal, following a relationship between isotope “clumping” and temperature that is statistically indistinguishable from inorganic calcite. This result is in agreement with a theoretical model of isotopic ordering in carbonate ion groups in apatite and calcite. This thermometer constrains body temperatures of bioapatite-producing organisms with an accuracy of 1–2 °C. Analyses of fossilized tooth enamel of both Pleistocene and Miocene age yielded temperatures within error of those derived from similar modern taxa. Clumped-isotope analysis of bioapatite represents a new approach in the study of the thermophysiology of extinct species, allowing the first direct measurement of their body temperatures. It will also open new avenues in the study of paleoclimate, as the measurement of clumped isotopes in phosphorites and fossils has the potential to reconstruct environmental temperatures. 


  1. Exciting if it actually works out.

  2. While this isotopic body thermometer is superior to the methods used in the 1990s and the "oughts", it still only records **temperature**. Thermophysiology concerns the variation in temperature over time, and even more how that variation is controlled (subcellular vs. behavioral), and thus isn't actually reflected in temperature per se.


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