Earth Sciences Publications

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We examine here the carbon and nitrogen isotopic compositions of bulk soils (8 topsoil and 7 subsoils, including two soil profiles) and five different plant parts of 79 C3 plants from two main functional groups: herbs and shrubs/subshrubs, from 18 different locations in grasslands of southern Yukon Territory, Canada (eastern shoreline of Kluane Lake and Whitehorse area). The Kluane Lake region in particular has been identified previously as an analogue for Late Pleistocene eastern Beringia. All topsoils have higher average total nitrogen δ15N and organic carbon δ13C than plants from the same sites with a positive shift occurring with depth in two soil profiles analyzed. All plants analyzed have an average whole plant δ13C of −27.5 ± 1.2 ‰ and foliar δ13C of ±28.0 ± 1.3 ‰, and average whole plant δ15N of −0.3 ± 2.2 ‰ and foliar δ15N of ±0.6 ± 2.7 ‰. Plants analyzed here showed relatively smaller variability in δ13C than δ15N. Their average δ13C after suitable corrections for the Suess effect should be suitable as baseline for interpreting diets of Late Pleistocene herbivores that lived in eastern Beringia. Water availability, nitrogen availability, spacial differences and intra-plant variability are important controls on δ15N of herbaceous plants in the study area. The wider range of δ15N, the more numerous factors that affect nitrogen isotopic composition and their likely differences in the past, however, limit use of the modern N isotopic baseline for vegetation in paleodietary models for such ecosystems. That said, the positive correlation between foliar δ15N and N content shown for the modern plants could support use of plant δ15N as an index for plant N content and therefore forage quality. The modern N isotopic baseline cannot be applied directly to the past, but it is prerequisite to future efforts to detect shifts in N cycling and forage quality since the Late Pleistocene through comparison with fossil plants from the same region.

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