Migration of a Late Cretaceous fish


Late Cretaceous sediments from the Western Interior of North America yield exceptionally well preserved fossils1,2 that serve as proxies for the rapidly changing climate preceding the Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary (about 67–65 Myr ago)3,4. Here we reconstruct the ontogenetic history of a Maastrichtian-age fish, Vorhisia vulpes5, by using the carbon, oxygen and strontium isotope ratios of four aragonite otoliths collected from the Fox Hills Formation of South Dakota. Individuals of V. vulpes spawned in brackish water (about 70–80% seawater) and during their first year migrated to open marine waters of the Western Interior Seaway, where they remained for 3 years before returning to the estuary, presumably to spawn and die. The mean δ18O from the marine growth phase of V. vulpes yields a seawater temperature of 18 °C, which is consistent with leaf physiognomy and general-circulation-model temperature estimates for the Western Interior during the latest Maastrichtian4,6,7.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Palaeogeography and stratigraphy of the Fox Hills Formation of North and South Dakota.
Figure 2: δ18O (filled circles) and δ13C (open circles) values of Vorhisia vulpes otolith specimens 1 (SLU FR476) (a), 2 (SLU FR477) (b), 3 (SLU FR478) (c) and 4 (SLU FR479) (d).


  1. 1

    Carpenter, S. J., Erickson, J. M., Lohmann, K. C. & Owen, M. R. Diagenesis of fossiliferous concretions from the Upper Cretaceous Fox Hills Formation, North Dakota. J. Sedim. Petrol. 58, 706–723 (1988)

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    McArthur, J. M., Kennedy, W. J., Chen, M., Thirlwall, M. F. & Gale, A. S. Strontium isotope stratigraphy for Late Cretaceous time: direct numerical calibration of the Sr isotope curve based on the US Western Interior. Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol. 108, 95–119 (1994)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Barrera, E. & Savin, S. in Evolution of the Cretaceous Ocean–Climate System (eds Barrera, E. & Johnson, C. C.) 245–282 (Geol. Soc. Am. Spec. Pap. 332, 1999)

    Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Wilf, P., Johnson, K. R. & Huber, B. T. Correlated terrestrial and marine evidence for global climate changes before the mass extinction at the Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 100, 599–604 (2003)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Frizzell, D. L. Otoliths of new fish (Vorhisia vulpes, N. Gen., N. Sp. Siluroidei?) from Upper Cretaceous of South Dakota. Copeia 2, 178–181 (1965)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Wolfe, J. A. & Upchurch, G. R. Jr North American nonmarine climates and vegetation during the Late Cretaceous. Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol. 61, 33–77 (1987)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Barron, E. J., Fawcett, P. J., Pollard, D. & Thompson, S. Model simulations of Cretaceous climates: the role of geography and carbon dioxide. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B 341, 307–315 (1993)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Patterson, W. P., Smith, G. R. & Lohmann, K. C. in Continental Climate Change from Isotopic Indicators (eds Swart, P., Lohmann, K. C., McKenzie, J. & Savin, S.) 191–202 (Am. Geophys. Un. Monogr., 1993)

    Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Thorrold, S. R., Campana, S. E., Jones, C. M. & Swart, P. K. Factors determining δ13C and δ18O fractionation in aragonitic otoliths of marine fish. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 61, 2909–2919 (1997)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Wurster, C. M. & Patterson, W. P. Late Holocene climate change for the eastern interior United States: evidence from high-resolution δ18O values of sagittal otoliths. Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimat. Palaeoecol. 170, 81–100 (2001)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Ivany, L. C., Patterson, W. P. & Lohmann, K. C. Increase in seasonality across the Eocene–Oligocene boundary inferred from high-resolution microsampling of fossil otoliths, US Gulf Coastal Plain. Nature 407, 887–890 (2000)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Andrus, C. F. T., Crowe, D. E., Sandweiss, D. H., Reitz, E. J. & Romanek, C. S. Otolith δ18O record of Mid-Holocene sea surface temperatures in Peru. Science 295, 1508–1511 (2002)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Patterson, W. P. Oldest isotopically characterized fish otoliths provide insight to Jurassic continental climate of Europe. Geology 27, 199–202 (1999)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Waage, K. M. The Type Fox Hills Formation, Cretaceous (Maestrichtian), South Dakota, Part 1. Stratigraphy and Paleoenvironments (Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, Bulletin 27, 1968).

  15. 15

    Erickson, J. M. in Proc. F. D. Holland, Jr., Geol. Symp. (eds Erickson, J. M. & Hoganson, J. W.) 199–241 (North Dakota Geological Survey Miscellaneous Series no. 76, 1992)

    Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Erickson, J. M. The Dakota Isthmus—closing the Late Cretaceous Western Interior Seaway. North Dakota Acad. Sci. Proc. 53, 124–129 (1999)

    Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Carpenter, S. J., Erickson, J. M. & Hoganson, J. W. Isotopic characterization of the Late Cretaceous Fox Hills – Hell Creek Estuary of North and South Dakota. Geol. Soc. Am. Abstr. Program 31–32 (2002)

  18. 18

    Nolf, D. & Stringer, G. L. in Mesozoic Fishes: Systematics and Paleoecology, Proc. Int. Meeting (eds Arratia, G. & Viohl, G.) 433–459 (Friedrich Pfeil, München, 1996)

    Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Shackleton, N. J. & Kennett, J. P. Paleotemperature history of the Cenozoic and initiation of Antarctic glaciation: Oxygen and carbon isotope analyses in Deep Sea Drilling Project Sites 277, 279, and 281. Init. Rep. DSDP 74, 761–776 (1975)

    Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Randall, R. G., Healy, M. C. & Dempson, J. B. in Common Strategies of Anadromous and Catadromous Fishes (eds Dadswell, M. J. et al.) 27–41 (American Fisheries Society, Bethesda, Maryland, 1987)

    Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Healy, M. C. & Groot, C. in Common Strategies of Anadromous and Catadromous Fishes (eds Dadswell, M. J. et al.) 298–312 (American Fisheries Society, Bethesda, Maryland, 1987)

    Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Peterson, B. J. & Fry, B. Stable isotopes in ecosystem studies. Annu. Rev. Ecol. Syst. 18, 293–320 (1987)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    Schwarcz, H. P. et al. Stable carbon isotope variations in otoliths of Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua). Can. J. Aquat. Sci. 55, 1798–1806 (1998)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    Weidman, C. R. & Millner, R. High-resolution stable isotope records from North Atlantic cod. Fisheries Res. 46, 327–342 (2000)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Wurster, C. M. & Patterson, W. P. Metabolic rate of late Holocene freshwater fish: evidence from δ13C values of otoliths. Paleobiology (in the press)

  26. 26

    McCormick, S. D. & Saunders, R. L. in Common Strategies of Anadromous and Catadromous Fishes (eds Dadswell, M. J. et al.) 211–229 (American Fisheries Society, Bethesda, Maryland, 1987)

    Google Scholar 

  27. 27

    Ursin, E. in Symp. Zool. Soc. Lond. 44, 63–87 (1979).

  28. 28

    Huddleston, R. W. & Savoie, K. M. Teleostean otoliths from the Late Cretaceous (Maestrichtian age) Severn Formation of Maryland. Proc. Biol. Soc. Wash. 96, 658–663 (1983)

    Google Scholar 

  29. 29

    Dettman, D. L. & Lohmann, K. C. Oxygen isotope evidence for high-altitude snow in the Laramide Rocky Mountains of North America during the Late Cretaceous and Paleogene. Geology 28, 243–246 (2000)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank G. Ludvigson, L. Gonzalez, T. White, H. Schwarcz and W. Patterson for comments on preliminary drafts of the manuscript, and N. Miller for strontium isotope analyses of biogenic carbonates.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Scott J. Carpenter.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Carpenter, S., Erickson, J. & Holland, F. Migration of a Late Cretaceous fish. Nature 423, 70–74 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature01575

Download citation

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing