Alkane distribution and carbon isotope composition in fossil leaves: An interpretation of plant physiology in the geologic past 

Monday, 15 December 2014: 9:45 AM
Heather V Graham, Oak Ridge Associated Universities Inc., Oak Ridge, TN, United States and Katherine H Freeman, Pennsylvania State Univ, University Park, PA, United States
The relative chain-length distribution and carbon-isotope composition of n-alkanes extracted from sedimentary rocks are important geochemical tools for investigating past terrestrial ecosystems. Alkanes preserved in ancient sediments are assumed to be contemporaneous, derived from the same ecosystem, and integrated from the biomass present on the landscape at the time of deposition. Further, there is an underlying assumption that ancient plants exhibited the same metabolic and physiological responses to climate conditions that are observed for modern plants. Interpretations of alkane abundances and isotopic signatures are complicated by the strong influence of phylogenetic affiliation and ecological factors, such as canopy structure. A better understanding of how ecosystem and taxa influence alkane properties, including homologue abundance patterns and leaf-lipid carbon isotope fractionation would help strengthen paleoecological interpretations based on these widely employed plant biomarkers.

In this study, we analyze the alkane chain-length distribution and carbon-isotope composition of phytoleim and alkanes (d13Cleaf and d13Clipid) extracted from a selection of Cretaceous and Paleocene fossil leaves from the Guaduas and Cerrejon Formations of Colombia. These data were compared with data for the same families in a modern analogue biome. Photosynthetic and biosynthetic fractionation (∆leaf and elipid) values determined from the fossil material indicate carbon metabolism patterns were similar to modern plants. Fossil data were incorporated in a biomass-weighted mixing model to represent the expected lipid complement of sediment arising from this ecosystem and compared with alkane measurements from the rock matrix. Modeled and observed isotopic and abundance patterns match well for alkane homologs most abundant in plants (i.e., n-C27 to n-C33). The model illustrates the importance of understanding biases in litter flux and taphonomic pressures inherent in the fossil lipid record, and it highlights the influence of community composition and forest structure on sedimentary lipids.