Radiocarbon dating of small terrestrial gastropod shells in North America

Quaternary Geochronology
By: , and 



Fossil shells of small terrestrial gastropods are commonly preserved in wetland, alluvial, loess, and glacial deposits, as well as in sediments at many archeological sites. These shells are composed largely of aragonite (CaCO3) and potentially could be used for radiocarbon dating, but they must meet two criteria before their 14C ages can be considered to be reliable: (1) when gastropods are alive, the 14C activity of their shells must be in equilibrium with the 14C activity of the atmosphere, and (2) after burial, their shells must behave as closed systems with respect to carbon. To evaluate the first criterion, we conducted a comprehensive examination of the 14C content of the most common small terrestrial gastropods in North America, including 247 AMS measurements of modern shell material (3749 individual shells) from 46 different species. The modern gastropods that we analyzed were all collected from habitats on carbonate terrain and, therefore, the data presented here represent worst-case scenarios. In sum, ~78% of the shell aliquots that we analyzed did not contain dead carbon from limestone or other carbonate rocks even though it was readily available at all sites, 12% of the aliquots contained between 5 and 10% dead carbon, and a few (3% of the total) contained more than 10%. These results are significantly lower than the 20-30% dead carbon that has been reported previously for larger taxa living in carbonate terrain. For the second criterion, we report a case study from the American Midwest in which we analyzed fossil shells of small terrestrial gastropods (7 taxa; 18 AMS measurements; 173 individual shells) recovered from late-Pleistocene sediments. The fossil shells yielded 14C ages that were statistically indistinguishable from 14C ages of well-preserved plant macrofossils from the same stratum. Although just one site, these results suggest that small terrestrial gastropod shells may behave as closed systems with respect to carbon over geologic timescales. More work on this subject is needed, but if our case study site is representative of other sites, then fossil shells of some small terrestrial gastropods, including at least five common genera, Catinella, Columella, Discus, Gastrocopta, and Succinea, should yield reliable 14C ages, regardless of the local geologic substrate. ?? 2010.

Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Radiocarbon dating of small terrestrial gastropod shells in North America
Series title Quaternary Geochronology
DOI 10.1016/j.quageo.2010.01.001
Volume 5
Issue 5
Year Published 2010
Language English
Larger Work Type Article
Larger Work Subtype Journal Article
Larger Work Title Quaternary Geochronology
First page 519
Last page 532
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