Bomb-curve radiocarbon measurement of recent biologic tissues and applications to wildlife forensics and stable isotope (paleo)ecology

Kevin T. Uno, Jay Quade, Daniel C. Fisher, George Wittemyer, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, Samuel Andanje, Patrick Omondi, Moses Litoroh, Thure E. Cerling

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

63 Scopus citations


Above-ground thermonuclear weapons testing from 1952 through 1962 nearly doubled the concentration of radiocarbon (14C) in the atmosphere. As a result, organic material formed during or after this period may be radiocarbon-dated using the abrupt rise and steady fall of the atmospheric 14C concentration known as the bomb-curve. We test the accuracy of accelerator mass spectrometry radiocarbon dating of 29 herbivore and plant tissues collected on known dates between 1905 and 2008 in East Africa. Herbivore samples include teeth, tusks, soft tissue, hair, and horn. Tissues formed after 1955 are dated to within 0.3-1.3 y of formation, depending on the tissue type, whereas tissues older than ca. 1955 have high age uncertainties (<17 y) due to the Suess effect. 14C dating of tissues has applications to stable isotope (paleo)ecology and wildlife forensics. We use data from 41 additional samples to determine growth rates of tusks, molars, and hair, which improve interpretations of serial stable isotope data for (paleo)ecological studies. 14C dating can also be used to calculate the time interval represented in periodic histological structures in dental tissues (i.e., perikymata), which in turn may be used as chronometers in fossil teeth. Bomb-curve 14C dating of confiscated animal tissues (e.g., ivory statues) can be used to determine whether trade of the item is legal, because many Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species restrictions are based on the age of the tissue, and thus can serve as a powerful forensic tool to combat illegal trade in animal parts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)11736-11741
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number29
StatePublished - Jul 16 2013


  • Carbon-14
  • Elephant
  • Growth increments
  • Growth rate
  • Poaching

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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