Fish fossils as paleo-indicators of ichthyofauna composition and climatic change in Lake Malawi, Africa

Peter N. Reinthal, Andrew S. Cohen, David L. Dettman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


Numerous biological and chemical paleorecords have been used to infer paleoclimate, lake level fluctuation and faunal composition from the drill cores obtained from Lake Malawi, Africa. However, fish fossils have never been used to examine changes in African Great Lake vertebrate aquatic communities nor as indicators of changing paleolimnological conditions. Here we present results of analyses of a Lake Malawi core dating back ~144ka that describe and quantify the composition and abundance of fish fossils and report on stable carbon isotopic data (δ13C) from fish scale, bone and tooth fossils. We compared the fossil δ13C values to δ13C values from extant fish communities to determine whether carbon isotope ratios can be used as indicators of inshore versus offshore pelagic fish assemblages. Fossil buccal teeth, pharyngeal teeth and mills, vertebra and scales from the fish families Cichlidae and Cyprinidae occur in variable abundance throughout the core. Carbon isotopic ratios from numerous fish fossils throughout the core range between -7.2 and -27.5%, similar to those found in contemporary Lake Malawi benthic and pelagic fish faunas. These results are the first paleo-record of fish fossils from a Lake Malawi sediment core and the first reported δ13C values from Lake Malawi fish fossils. This approach provides a new methodology and framework for interpreting pelagic versus inshore fish faunas, lake level fluctuations and the evolution of the Lake Malawi fish assemblages.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)126-132
Number of pages7
JournalPalaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology
Issue number1-4
StatePublished - Apr 1 2011

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank reviewers William Patterson, John Lundberg, and Chris Scholz for comments and suggestions that led to a greatly improved manuscript. Initial core processing was carried out at LacCore, the National Lake Core Repository at the University of Minnesota. Funding for the field program was provided by the U.S. National Science Foundation–ESH Program and the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program , with additional funding for AC from the Smithsonian Institution (ETE and Fellowship Programs). We also thank D. Gauggler, R. Markus and L. Brooke McDonough for help with sample preparation. This work was supported by NSF EAR-0602350 to the three authors. We thank the government of Malawi for permission to undertake this research and Dr. D.S.C. Lewis for drawing Fig. 1 .

Copyright 2011 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Carbon isotopes
  • Cichlid
  • Cyprinid
  • Fish fossils
  • Lake Malawi
  • Sediment core

Continental Scientific Drilling Facility tags

  • GLAD7

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