Spatial-temporal changes in Andean plateau climate and elevation from stable isotopes of mammal teeth

John Bershaw, Carmala N. Garzione, Pennilyn Higgins, Bruce J. MacFadden, Frederico Anaya, Herculano Alvarenga

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

60 Scopus citations


Paleoelevation constraints from fossil leaf physiognomy and stable isotopes of sedimentary carbonate suggest that significant surface uplift of the northern Andean plateau, on the order of 2.5 ± 1 km, occurred between ∼ 10.3 and 6.4 Ma. Independent spatial and temporal constraints on paleoelevation and paleoclimate of both the northern and southern plateau are important for understanding the distribution of rapid surface uplift and its relation to climate evolution across the plateau. This study focuses on teeth from modern and extinct mammal taxa (including notoungulates, pyrotheres, and litopterns) spanning ∼ 29 Ma to present, collected from the Altiplano and Eastern Cordillera of Bolivia (16.2°S to 21.4°S), and lowland Brazil. Tooth enamel of large, water-dependent mammals preserves a record of surface water isotopes and the type of plants that animals ingested while their teeth were mineralizing. Previous studies have shown that the δ18O of modern precipitation and surface waters decrease systematically with increasing elevations across the central Andes. Our results from high elevation sites between 3600 and 4100 m show substantially more positive δ18O values for late Oligocene tooth samples compared to < 10 Ma tooth δ18O values. Late Oligocene teeth collected from low elevation sites in southeast Brazil show δ18O values similar (within 2‰) to contemporaneous teeth collected at high elevation in the Eastern Cordillera. This affirms that the Andean plateau was at a very low elevation during the late Oligocene. Late Oligocene teeth from the northern Eastern Cordillera also yield consistent δ13C values of about - 9‰, indicating that the environment was semi-arid at that time. Latitudinal gradients in δ18O values of late Miocene to Pliocene fossil teeth are similar to modern values for large mammals, suggesting that by ∼ 8 Ma in the northern Altiplano and by ∼ 3.6 Ma in the southern Altiplano, both regions had reached high elevation and established a latitudinal rainfall gradient similar to modern.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)530-538
Number of pages9
JournalEarth and Planetary Science Letters
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - Jan 31 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • Altiplano
  • Andes
  • fossil teeth
  • paleoelevation
  • paleolimate
  • stable isotopes
  • surface uplift

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geophysics
  • Geochemistry and Petrology
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science


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