Seasonality and lake water temperature inferred from the geochemistry and sclerochronology of quaternary freshwater bivalves from the Turkana Basin, Ethiopia and Kenya

Andrew S. Cohen, Julia Manobianco, David L. Dettman, Bryan A. Black, Catherine Beck, Craig S. Feibel, Josephine C. Joordens, Bert Van Bocxlaer, Hubert Vonhof

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Reconstructing past environmental variability at short (annual-decadal) time scales is critical for understanding ecosystem change and ecological drivers of evolution. One promising approach to reconstructing that variability is through the use of stable isotope geochemistry and sclerochronology, the study of growth banding in organisms that undergo accretionary growth. We used a combination of sclerochronology, conventional stable isotope ratios and clumped isotope paleotemperatures to improve our understanding of past seasonality and climate variability in the Turkana Basin (Kenya, Ethiopia), which experiences a highly seasonal (tropical semi-desert) climate. In this case study, we apply these approaches to both Early Pleistocene and Holocene bivalve shells (Etheria and Pseudobovaria) to develop a model using various proxies of seasonal-interannual temporal variability in lake temperature and isotope chemistry. We leverage this model to better understand how lakes in the Turkana Basin have changed over short time-scales in the past. One modern (1979) river oyster has exclusively negative δ18O values through ∼1.5 yrs of growth and clumped isotope temperature reconstructions (30.1–31.5 °C) consistent with a river delta provenance. Late Holocene shells show a wider range of isotopic variability within each shell's growth history than the modern sample (∼2‰ for the modern sample vs. 5–7‰ for the Late Holocene samples) and near modern paleotemperatures, suggesting growth under both seasonal Omo flood pulse and lacustrine conditions. Middle Holocene shells exhibit less δ18O variability, consistent with growth in fresher Lake Turkana water at the end of the African Humid Period (12-5 ka), and with both surface water temperatures and water column temperature range similar to the Late Holocene. The Early Pleistocene shells have large seasonal δ18O cycles (4–7‰), with δ18O values comparable to modern and Holocene deltaic shells, and a large range of paleotemperatures (21.8–31.3 °C, including temperatures notably cooler than those measured in the modern lake: 25–31 °C), reflecting growth under significant seasonality in paleo-Omo River runoff. Oxygen isotope cycles suggest high degrees of seasonality of the paleo-Omo River runoff (or that of other major influents) into paleolake Lorenyang at ∼1.6 Ma, which may be similar to modern hydroclimate conditions. Comparison to prior datasets from nearby outcrops in the same basin suggests an increase in hydroclimate seasonality between 1.9 and 1.6 Ma. The combination of clumped isotope paleotemperature estimates from shallow water species such as E. elliptica with TEX86 measurements (derived here from previously published, contemporaneous sediment core studies from the south basin of Lake Turkana), which record temperatures near the oxycline, may provide a new approach to estimating past temperature variability along a vertical profile in lakes, thereby providing information on water column mixing regimes. Our approach greatly expands our toolkit for understanding coupled climate seasonality and variability in the Turkana Basin.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number108284
JournalQuaternary Science Reviews
StatePublished - Oct 1 2023


  • Climate variability
  • Clumped isotopes
  • Lake turkana
  • Paleotemperature
  • Sclerochronology
  • Seasonality
  • Stable isotopes
  • Turkana basin

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Archaeology
  • Archaeology
  • Geology


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