Linkages between Holocene paleoclimate and paleohydrogeology preserved in a Yucatan underwater cave

Peter J. van Hengstum, Eduard G. Reinhardt, Patricia A. Beddows, Jeremy J. Gabriel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Three sediment cores spanning the last 4200 years from Aktun Ha Cave on the Yucatan Peninsula (Mexico) demonstrate that underwater caves can document changes to regional hydrogeology and climate. Benthic microfossils (testate amoebae, foraminifera), organic matter geochemistry (δ13C, δ15N, C/N), and particle size distributions were analyzed. However, microfossil paleoecology proved the most useful for indicating three salinity phases in the Aktun Ha sediment cores. Phase 1 (>4300 yr BP) contains predominantly foraminifera (Physalidia simplex, 78%) that indicate the meteoric lens flooding the cave was initially brackish (salinity >3.5 g L-1). Phase 2 (2800-4300 Cal yr BP) has both freshwater testate amoebae (Centropyxis spp. 40%) and P. simplex (42%), which indicates a slight freshening of the meteoric lens to 1.5-2 g L-1. Phase 3 (<2800 yr BP) is demarcated by an increase in testate amoebae abundance (90%) and diversity, including the colonization of Lagenodifflugia vas and Difflugia oblonga, with a reduction in P. simplex (10%). This last faunal shift represents the initiation of modern freshwater conditions in the cave (1.5 g L-1). This final freshening is synchronous with a significant reduction in the C/N ratio (e.g., Core 2: ∼27 to 19), which suggests an expansion of primary productivity in the adjacent cenote. The δ15N values ranged from 1.5 to 3.5‰ with observed cycles likely from intervals of increased terrestrial OM input into the cave during high rainfall events (e.g., hurricanes). The observed paleoenvironmental shifts in the cave correlate well with regional precipitation patterns, aquifer recharge, and storm activity caused by southward migration of the Intertropical Convergence Zone. Therefore, regional climate change impacted eastern Yucatan groundwater during the mid to late Holocene. However, decelerating Holocene sea-level rise and aquifer occlusion are likely contributing factors. These results demonstrate that underwater cave sediments and microfossils can be useful proxies for aquifer evolution and climate change.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2788-2798
Number of pages11
JournalQuaternary Science Reviews
Issue number19-20
StatePublished - Sep 2010
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Archaeology
  • Archaeology
  • Geology


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