Isotopic analysis of tooth enamel carbonate from modern North American feral horses: Implications for paleoenvironmental reconstructions

Kathryn A. Hoppe, Ronald Amundson, Martin Vavra, Mitchel P. McClaran, David L. Anderson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

68 Scopus citations


The accuracy of paleoenvironmental reconstructions based on isotope analyses of equid teeth is currently uncertain because the exact relationship between the isotope composition of modern feral equids and their environment has not been thoroughly studied. We analyzed the carbon and oxygen isotope values (δ13C and δ18O) of tooth enamel carbonate and the δ13C values of fecal samples from modern feral horses. We compared those values with the δ13C values of local vegetation and the δ18O values of local waters. Herds were studied in two contrasting localities: eastern Oregon, where grasslands consisted of 100% C3 species, and New Mexico, where >95% of the grasses were C4 species. Carbon isotope analyses of fecal material and tooth enamel suggest that horses consumed primarily grass, but some New Mexico horses also consumed significant amounts of shrubs and/or forbs. Microhistological analyses of fecal samples show that Oregon horses consumed 95% grass, and Oregon enamel δ13C values are consistent with a diet containing 100% C3 plants. Microhistological analyses of fecal samples from New Mexico indicate a diet averaging 75% grass, while enamel δ13C values suggest that diets averaged 85% C4 plants (range=72-97%). Thus, reconstructions of the C3/C4 ratio of grasses in ancient grasslands that are based on the δ 13C values of fossil equid teeth may underestimate the abundance of C4 grasses. The mean δ18O values of tooth enamel paralleled the trends observed in the mean δ18O values of precipitation. However, the mean δ18O values of enamel carbonate from Oregon and New Mexico differed by only 3.3‰, which is less than the difference in the mean δ18O values of precipitation (6.5‰). In addition, the range of δ18O values within New Mexico enamel samples (6.5‰) was greater than the difference between mean enamel δ18O values at each site. Calculated values for the δ18O of water ingested by horses are 2-3‰ more positive than mean δ18O values for corresponding precipitation, suggesting that horses consumed waters that were enriched in 18O due to evaporation. While our results confirm that local climatic and hydrological conditions can influence the δ 18O values of equid enamel, they also show that the δ 18O values of equid teeth are not always a direct proxy for the isotope ratios of precipitation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)299-311
Number of pages13
JournalPalaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - Jan 28 2004


  • Carbon
  • Enamel
  • Equus
  • Isotopes
  • Oxygen
  • Precipitation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oceanography
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Earth-Surface Processes
  • Palaeontology


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