Occurrence and fate of fatty acyl biomarkers in an ancient whale bone (Oligocene, El Cien Formation, Mexico)

Volker Thiel*, Martin Blumenberg, Steffen Kiel, Tim Leefmann, Katharina Liebenau, Johan Lindgren, Peter Sjövall, Tina Treude, Thomas Zilla

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    15 Citations (Scopus)


    The taphonomic and diagenetic processes by which organic substances are preserved in animal remains are not completely known and the originality of putative metazoan biomolecules in fossil samples is a matter of scientific discussion. Here we report on biomarker information preserved in a fossil whale bone from an Oligocene phosphatic limestone (El Cien Fm., Mexico), with a focus on fatty acyl compounds. Extracts were quantitatively analysed using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) and, to identify macromolecular-linked remains, demineralised extraction residues were subjected to catalytic hydropyrolysis (HyPy). To better recognise potential authentic (i.e. animal-derived) lipids, the data from the ancient bone were compared with those obtained from (i) the adjacent host sediment of the fossil and (ii) a recent whale (Phocoena phocoena) vertebra. In addition, the spatial distribution of organic and inorganic species was observed at the μm level by imaging MS (time-of-flight-secondary ion mass spectrometry, ToF-SIMS). Our results revealed a rather even distribution of hydrocarbon-, O- and N-containing ions in the trabecular network of the ancient bone. A different, more patchy arrangement of organic compounds was evident in the former marrow cavities that were partly cemented by clotted micrites of putative microbial origin. The concentration of fatty acids (FAs) in the ancient bone was in the permil range of the amount extracted from the recent whale vertebra. Endogenous compounds, including monoenoic n-C16 and n-C18 as well as branched FAs, were identified in the fossil bone by comparison with the host sediment. Ca. 80% of the prevalent n-C16 and n-C18 moieties in the ancient bone were extractable as FAs, whereas ca. 20% were covalently bound in the non-saponifiable kerogen fraction. Ample pyrite precipitates, distinctive 10-methyl branched FAs and microbial microborings ("tunneling") indicate that sulfate reducers and collagen-degrading actinomycetes were central players in the microbial decomposition of the bone. Similarities with reported microbial FA patterns suggest that the FAs in the fossil bone were largely contributed by these microbial "last eaters". The results highlight some of the degradation and preservation mechanisms during marine FA diagenesis in the "natural laboratory" of bones, and therefore the processes that lead to either degradation, preservation, or introduction of these widespread biomolecules in the fossils of ancient marine animals.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)71-81
    Number of pages11
    JournalOrganic Geochemistry
    Publication statusPublished - Mar 2014


    Dive into the research topics of 'Occurrence and fate of fatty acyl biomarkers in an ancient whale bone (Oligocene, El Cien Formation, Mexico)'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

    Cite this