Carbon dating shells

However, we recommend milligrams be sent to allow for an aggressive cleaning prior to the dating and repeat analyses if necessary for confirming results based on quality control measures, at no additional cost to the client. Powdered Carbonates — Please take note that exposure to atmospheric carbon dioxide CO2 may affect the radiocarbon dating results. It has been shown that powdered carbonates will absorb atmospheric CO2 due to the very large surface area. When it is necessary to extract carbonates by drilling or powdering specific areas of the material especially those suspected to be very old — greater than 20 ky , we recommend that the drilling be done under an inert gas like N2, Ar, etc.

Shells are often sent to accelerator mass spectrometry AMS labs for radiocarbon dating. A great proportion of shell materials sent to AMS labs for carbon 14 dating are mollusk shells.


  • Claim CD011.3:!
  • Marine Radiocarbon Reservoir Effect.
  • CD C dates of living snails.
  • Marine Reservoir Effect, Corrections to Radiocarbon Dates!
  • Radiocarbon dating samples.

Shells are not easy to radiocarbon date; there are many factors that contribute uncertainties to the results. American physical chemist Willard Libby, a pioneer of the radiocarbon dating technology, predicted shells to be the least effective materials to radiocarbon date.

Shells can be categorized as marine, estuarine, or riverine. Analysts in AMS labs need to know the type of shell they are dealing with in order to establish the potential contaminants and determine the methods to remove them. Shellfish obtain carbon from the biosphere for shell building. According to scientific studies, shellfish obtain organic carbon from marine or terrestrial plants and inorganic carbon from ocean water bicarbonate, atmospheric carbon dioxide, or freshwater bicarbonate.

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Shells are formed by the deposition of calcium carbonate crystals to an organic matrix, which is a protein called conchiolin. This protein makes up only a few percent of the shell, hence the sample needed in the radiocarbon dating process is the inorganic portion. Although inorganic, the carbonate is still datable since its formation involves incorporation of carbon 14 from the biosphere.

The carbonate present in shells is usually in the form of the mineral aragonite although some shells are mixtures of aragonite and calcite while others, like oyster shell, is mostly calcite. Recrystallization, on the other hand, can affect even the inner layers of a shell.

This phenomenon, accompanied by the conversion of aragonite to calcite, also alters the carbon 14 ratio. Recrystallization usually occurs when the shell exchanges carbon with modern calcite. There are two source or reservoir effects relevant to the radiocarbon dating of shells—the marine effect and the hard water effect.

Radiocarbon Dating

Age offset evaluation must be done on radiocarbon dating results on shells because of these effects. The marine effect is a consequence of the slow mixing between surface waters and deep waters in the oceans.

Global Radiocarbon Cycle

The rapid exchange of carbon between the atmosphere and the biosphere via the carbon dioxide pathway is not exactly the same between the atmosphere and the oceans. Carbon dioxide equilibrium between the atmosphere and surface waters is achieved relatively quickly. Surface waters, however, exchange carbon dioxide with deeper waters in a rate that is so slow, the carbon 14 content of the incoming carbon dioxide from the surface water and the outgoing carbon dioxide from the deep waters may already be in different stages of radiocarbon decay.

Studies show that the residence time of carbon 14 in the atmosphere ranges between 6 years and 10 years while the residence time of carbon 14 in oceans could take thousands of years. Upwelling is another phenomenon that dilutes radiocarbon content of surface waters. In certain parts of the globe, the equatorial region in particular, deep waters move up. This phenomenon is latitude dependent and occurs as a consequence of trade winds.

Coastline shape, local climate and wind, and ocean bottom topography also contribute to upwelling. The slow mixing and the upwelling of deep waters mean that the surface water of oceans already have apparent radiocarbon age relative to the atmosphere. Freshwater shells may not be affected by the marine reservoir effect, but they are susceptible to the hard water effect—the presence of calcium ions resulting from the dissolution of infinite-age calcium carbonate. The presence of calcium ions coincides with carbon depletion although the magnitude of the hard water effect is not directly correlated with the amount of calcium ions.

This effect causes the ages of samples to appear older than they actually are due to the incorporation of older CaCO3 that has been dissolved into the freshwater source from substances like limestone or marl that the lake or streams move through. This is sometimes tested by dating living shells in the same area to see if they yield modern results or older results. This bias can be on the order of a few decades to several hundred years depending on different factors. Hard water effect can also affect marine shells deposited in areas where there is an influx of carbonate-rich freshwater like in river mouths.

Terrestrial shells, like snail shell, are also affected by the hard water effect in cases when the organism has been feeding on carbonate-rich areas like a chalkland. This is especially true when comparing samples from terrestrial organisms and those that assimilated radiocarbon from the marine environment. Oceans are large carbon 14 reservoirs. Surfaces of oceans and other bodies of water have two sources of radiocarbon — atmospheric carbon dioxide and the deep ocean. Deep waters in oceans get carbon 14 from mixing with the surface waters as well as from the radioactive decay already occurring at their levels.

Studies show that equilibration of carbon dioxide with carbon 14 in surface water is of the order of 10 years. The degree of equilibration of carbon dioxide in deep water remains unknown. Radiocarbon dates of a terrestrial and marine organism of equivalent age have a difference of about radiocarbon years.

Terrestrial organisms like trees primarily get carbon 14 from atmospheric carbon dioxide but marine organisms do not.

Marine Reservoir Effect

Samples from marine organisms like shells, whales, and seals appear much older. Another factor to consider is that the magnitude of the marine reservoir effect is not the same in all locations. The mixing of deep waters upward with surface waters—in a phenomenon known as upwelling—is latitude dependent and occurs predominantly in the equatorial region. Coastline shape, local climate and wind, trade winds, and ocean bottom topography also affect upwelling.

Radiocarbon Dating Shell, Coral, and CaCO3

According to a study published in by J. There are three methods used in determining regional differences in marine radiocarbon reservoir effect, as listed by Sean Ulm in a report dated December Terrestrial and marine samples cannot be compared or associated without accounting for the marine radiocarbon reservoir effect.

Correction factors for different oceans in the world are found in an online database, the Marine Reservoir Correction Database, funded in part by the Institute for Aegean Prehistory.

Actual correction varies with location due to complexities in ocean circulation. Depending on the age of the marine carbonate, a to year correction i. This automatic correction means the radiocarbon date gets more recent in time due to the fact that it takes years for present-day carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to be incorporated and distributed equilibrated through the ocean water column. A negative Delta-R will make the date older typically presuming freshwater dilution from the global marine average.

Freshwater systems running through limestone or fed by old water from springs can lead to falsely old ages in carbonate AMS dates. The dissolved inorganic carbon DIC used by the individuals to form their shells or in the precipitation of carbonate concretions will be older than the time of formation due to old DIC from the limestone. Aquatic systems fed by old water will have old DIC associated with that water and the same effect can be observed.

The best way to know the reservoir offset is to analyze organic materials in association with the shells which are not subject to the effect.

marine biology - Age of shells on beach - Biology Stack Exchange

Most commonly charcoal or seeds found in very close association with the carbonate are used to compare the Carbon ages and use the difference to correct the shells. If the researcher is not aware of any offset, the lab recommends doing a literature search and to understand the geologic systems supplying the water to the site. Out of all shell species that have been radiocarbon dated over the years, mollusk shells have been the species tested the most. These shells both have inorganic and organic components. Conchiolin, the organic component, makes only a minute portion of the whole sample.

Thus radiocarbon measurements are usually applied on the inorganic component, which is calcium carbonate.