From Middens to Modern Estuaries, Oyster Shells Sequester Source-Specific Nitrogen

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Anthropology and Sociology


Oysters (Crassostrea virginica) were an important food resource for native peoples of the northern Gulf of Mexico, who deposited waste shells in middens. Nitrogen (N) stable isotopes15N) in bivalve shells have been used as modern proxies for estuarine N sources because they approximate δ15N in suspended particulate matter. We tested the use of midden shell δ15N as a proxy for ancient estuarine N sources. We hypothesized that isotopic signatures in ancient shells from coastal Mississippi would differ from modern shells due to increased anthropogenic N sources, such as wastewater, through time. We decalcified shells using an acidification technique previously developed for modern bivalves, but modified to determine δ15N, δ13C, %N, and % organic C of these low-N, high-C specimens. The modified method resulted in the greatest percentage of usable data from midden shells. Our results showed that oyster shell δ15N did not significantly differ between ancient (500–2100 years old) and modern oysters from the same locations where the sites had undergone relatively little land-use change. δ15N values in modern shells, however, were positively correlated with water column nitrate concentrations associated with urbanization. When N content and total shell mass were combined, we estimated that middens sequestered 410–39,000 kg of relic N, buried at a rate of up to 5 kg N m−2 yr−1. This study provides a relatively simple technique to assess baseline conditions in ecosystems over long time scales by demonstrating that midden shells can be an indicator of pre-historic N source to estuariesand are a potentially significant but previously uncharacterized estuarine N sink.

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Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta



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