15N natural abundance of fossil peat reflects the influence of animal-derived nitrogen on vegetation

Dana M. Bergstrom*, George R. Stewart, Patricia M. Selkirk, Susanne Schmidt

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

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δ15N signatures of fossil peat were used to interpret past ecosystem processes on tectonically active subantarctic Macquarie Island. By comparing past vegetation reconstructed from the fossil record with present-day vegetation analogues, our evidence strongly suggests that changes in the δ15N signatures of fossil peat at this location reflect mainly past changes in the proportion of plant nitrogen derived from animal sources. Associated with uplift above sea level over the past 8,500 years, fossil records in two peat deposits on the island chronicle a change from coastal vegetation with fur and elephant seal disturbance to the existing inland herbfield. Coupled with this change are synchronous changes in the δ15N signatures of peat layers. At two sites 15N-enriched peat δ15N signatures of up to +17‰ were associated with a high abundance of pollen of the nitrophile Callitriche antarctica (Callitrichaceae). At one site fossil seal hair was also associated with enriched peat δ15N. Less 15N enriched δ15N signatures (e.g. -1.9‰ to +3.9‰) were measured in peat layers which lacked animal associated C. antarctica and Acaena spp. Interpretation of a third peat profile indicates continual occupation of a ridge site by burrowing petrels for most of the Holocene. We suggest that 15N signatures of fossil peat remained relatively stable with time once deposited, providing a significant new tool for interpreting the palaeoecology.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)309-314
Number of pages6
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2002



  • N natural abundance
  • Holocene
  • Macquarie Island
  • Peat
  • Subantarctic

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