Oxygen isotopes in orangutan teeth reveal recent and ancient climate variation

Tanya Smith, Manish Arora, Christine Austin, Janaina N. Avila, Mathieu Duval, Tze Tshen Lim, Philip Piper, Petra Vaiglova, John de Vos, Ian Williams, Jian-Xin Zhao, Daniel R Green

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Studies of climate variation commonly rely on chemical and isotopic changes recorded in sequentially-produced growth layers, such as in corals, shells and tree rings, as well as in accretionary deposits—ice and sediment cores, and speleothems. Oxygen isotopic compositions (δ18O) of tooth enamel are a direct method of reconstructing environmental variation experienced by an individual animal. Here we utilize long-forming orangutan dentitions (Pongo spp.) to probe recent and ancient rainfall trends on a weekly basis over ∼ 3– 11 years per individual. We first demonstrate the lack of any consistent isotopic enrichment effect during exclusive nursing, supporting the use of primate first molar teeth as environmental proxies. Comparisons of δ18O values (n = 2016) in six modern Bornean and Sumatran orangutans reveal a high degree of overlap, with more consistent annual and bimodal rainfall patterns in the Sumatran individuals. Comparisons with fossil orangutan δ18O values (n = 955) reveal similarities between modern and late Pleistocene fossil Sumatran individuals, but differences between modern and late Pleistocene/early Holocene Bornean orangutans. These suggest drier and more open environments with reduced monsoon intensity during this earlier period in northern Borneo, consistent with other Niah Caves studies and long-term speleothem δ18O records in the broader region. This approach can be extended to test hypotheses about the paleoenvironments that early humans encountered in southeast Asia.
    Original languageEnglish
    Issue number12:RP90217
    Publication statusPublished - 2023


    Dive into the research topics of 'Oxygen isotopes in orangutan teeth reveal recent and ancient climate variation'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

    Cite this