Constraining the ages and mass accumulation rates of late Quaternary loess deposits is often difficult because of the paucity of organic material typically available for 14C dating and the inherent limitations of luminescence techniques. Radiocarbon dating of small terrestrial gastropod shells may provide an alternative to these methods as fossil shells are common in loess and contain ∼12% carbon by weight. Terrestrial gastropod assemblages in loess have been used extensively to reconstruct past environmental conditions but have been largely ignored for dating purposes. Here, we present the results of a multi-faceted approach to understanding the potential for using small terrestrial gastropod shells to date loess deposits in North America. First, we compare highly resolved 14C ages of well-preserved wood and gastropod shells (Succineidae) recovered from a Holocene loess section in Alaska. Radiocarbon ages derived from the shells are nearly identical to wood and plant macrofossil ages throughout the section, which suggests that the shells behaved as closed systems with respect to carbon for at least the last 10 ka (thousands of calibrated 14C years before present). Second, we apply 14C dating of gastropod shells to late Pleistocene loess deposits in the Great Plains using stratigraphy and independent chronologies for comparison. The new shell ages require less interpretation than humic acid radiocarbon ages that are commonly used in loess studies, provide additional stratigraphic coverage to previous dating efforts, and are in correct stratigraphic order more often than their luminescence counterparts. Third, we show that Succineidae shells recovered from historic loess in the Matanuska River Valley, Alaska captured the 20th century 14C bomb spike, which suggests that the shells can be used to date late Holocene and historic-aged loess. Finally, results from Nebraska and western Iowa suggest that, similar to other materials, shell ages approaching ∼40 ka should be viewed with caution as they may reflect trace amounts of contamination. In sum, our results show that small terrestrial gastropod shells, especially from the Succineidae family, provide reliable ages for late Quaternary loess deposits in North America.
Additional publication details
Radiocarbon dating late Quaternary loess deposits using small terrestrial gastropod shells
Quaternary Science Reviews
Geosciences and Environmental Change Science Center