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Differential taphonomic effects of petroleum seeps and karstic sinkholes on ancient dire wolf teeth: Hydrocarbon impregnation preserves fossils for chemical and histological analysis

By Sabrina B. Sholts, Leslea J. Hlusko, Joshua P. Carlson, Sebastian K. T. S. Wärmländer

Posted 05 Jan 2021
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2021.01.04.425345

Histological analysis of teeth can yield information on an organisms growth and development, facilitating investigations of diet, health, environment, and long-term responses to selective pressures. In the Americas, an extraordinary abundance of Late Pleistocene fossils including teeth has been preserved in petroleum seeps, constituting a major source of information about biotic changes and adaptations at the end of the last glacial period. However, the usefulness of these fossils for histological studies is unclear, due to the unknown taphonomic effects of long-term deposition in petroleum. Here, we compare histological and chemical analyses on dire wolf (Canis dirus) teeth obtained from two different environments, i.e. a petroleum seep (Rancho La Brea tar pits, California) and a carstic sinkhole (Cutler Hammock sinkhole, Florida). Optical and scanning electron microscopy (SEM) together with X-ray diffraction (XRD) analysis revealed excellent preservation of dental microstructure in the seep sample, and the petroleum-induced discoloration was found not to interfere with the histological and chemical examination. By comparison, teeth from the sinkhole sample showed severe degradation and contamination of the dentine by exogenous substances. These results indicate that petroleum seep assemblages are useful, or even ideal, environments for preserving the integrity of fossil material for chemical and histological analysis.

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