Exploring cycad foliage as an archive of the isotopic composition of atmospheric nitrogen

Michael A. Kipp*, Eva E. Stüeken, Michelle M. Gehringer, Kim Sterelny, John K. Scott, Paul I. Forster, Caroline A.E. Strömberg, Roger Buick

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    5 Citations (Scopus)


    Molecular nitrogen (N2) constitutes the majority of Earth's modern atmosphere, contributing ~0.79 bar of partial pressure (pN2). However, fluctuations in pN2 may have occurred on 107–109 year timescales in Earth's past, perhaps altering the isotopic composition of atmospheric nitrogen. Here, we explore an archive that may record the isotopic composition of atmospheric N2 in deep time: the foliage of cycads. Cycads are ancient gymnosperms that host symbiotic N2-fixing cyanobacteria in modified root structures known as coralloid roots. All extant species of cycads are known to host symbionts, suggesting that this N2-fixing capacity is perhaps ancestral, reaching back to the early history of cycads in the late Paleozoic. Therefore, if the process of microbial N2 fixation records the δ15N value of atmospheric N2 in cycad foliage, the fossil record of cycads may provide an archive of atmospheric δ15N values. To explore this potential proxy, we conducted a survey of wild cycads growing in a range of modern environments to determine whether cycad foliage reliably records the isotopic composition of atmospheric N2. We find that neither biological nor environmental factors significantly influence the δ15N values of cycad foliage, suggesting that they provide a reasonably robust record of the δ15N of atmospheric N2. Application of this proxy to the record of carbonaceous cycad fossils may not only help to constrain changes in atmospheric nitrogen isotope ratios since the late Paleozoic, but also could shed light on the antiquity of the N2-fixing symbiosis between cycads and cyanobacteria.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)152-166
    Number of pages15
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2020


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