Environmental controls on branched tetraether lipid distributions in tropical East African lake sediments

J. E. Tierney, J. M. Russell, H. Eggermont, E. C. Hopmans, D. Verschuren, J. S. Sinninghe Damsté

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

213 Scopus citations


Quantifying past continental temperature changes is an important aspect of paleoclimate research as it allows us to constrain the amplitude of natural variability, test predictive climate models, and provide a proper context for changes that may arise in response to anthropogenically-induced climate change. The recently developed biomarker-based methylation index of branched tetraethers/cyclization ratio of branched tetraethers (MBT/CBT) proxy shows potential as a new method for continental temperature reconstruction, but thus far it has only been applied successfully in ocean margin sediments. To assess whether this proxy is also applicable to the sedimentary record in tropical lacustrine systems, we investigated the distribution of branched glycerol dialkyl glycerol tetraethers (GDGTs) in recently deposited sediments from 46 lakes in tropical East Africa. These lakes span a substantial range in surface elevation (770-4500. m above sea level), and thus also a wide gradient of mean annual temperature. We find that, saline lakes excepted, branched GDGTs are universally abundant in the lakes investigated and can be used to predict mean annual air temperature (MAAT) with a high degree of accuracy. However, the existing global MBT/CBT calibration for MAAT based on soils predicts inaccurate temperatures when applied to our African lake dataset. This observation, together with the fact that surface water pH, and to lesser extent, lake depth appear to influence the distribution of branched GDGTs among sites, leads us to conclude that in situ production of branched GDGTs in lakes is likely. The robust relationship between branched GDGT distribution and the temperature and pH of African freshwater lakes makes these compounds suitable for paleoenvironmental reconstruction, however we urge caution in using branched GDGTs in lake sediments to infer past temperatures, unless their exact origin can be determined.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4902-4918
Number of pages17
JournalGeochimica et Cosmochimica Acta
Issue number17
StatePublished - Sep 2010
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geochemistry and Petrology


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