Oxygen isotopes in orangutan teeth reveal recent and ancient climate variation

Tanya M. Smith, Manish Arora, Christine Austin, Janaína Nunes Ávila, Mathieu Duval, Tze Tshen Lim, Philip J. Piper, Petra Vaiglova, John de Vos, Ian S. Williams, Jian Xin Zhao, Daniel R. Green

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Studies of climate variation commonly rely on chemical and isotopic changes recorded in sequentially produced growth layers, such as in corals, shells, and tree rings, as well as in accretionary deposits—ice and sediment cores, and speleothems. Oxygen isotopic compositions (δ18O) of tooth enamel are a direct method of reconstructing environmental variation experienced by an individual animal. Here, we utilize long-forming orangutan dentitions (Pongo spp.) to probe recent and ancient rainfall trends on a weekly basis over ~3–11 years per individual. We first demonstrate the lack of any consistent isotopic enrichment effect during exclusive nursing, supporting the use of primate first molar teeth as environmental proxies. Comparisons of δ18O values (n=2016) in twelve molars from six modern Bornean and Sumatran orangutans reveal a high degree of overlap, with more consistent annual and bimodal rainfall patterns in the Sumatran individuals. Comparisons with fossil orangutan δ18O values (n=955 measurements from six molars) reveal similarities between modern and late Pleistocene fossil Sumatran individuals, but differences between modern and late Pleistocene/early Holocene Bornean orangutans. These suggest drier and more open environments with reduced monsoon intensity during this earlier period in northern Borneo, consistent with other Niah Caves studies and long-term speleothem δ18O records in the broader region. This approach can be extended to test hypotheses about the paleoenvironments that early humans encountered in southeast Asia.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberRP90217
StatePublished - 2024


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