Radiocarbon decays slowly in a living organism, and the amount lost is continually replenished as long as the organism takes in air or food.
Once the organism dies, however, it ceases to absorb carbon-14, so that the amount of the radiocarbon in its tissues steadily decreases.
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By comparing the surviving amount of carbon-14 to the original amount, scientists can calculate how long ago the animal died.
Since the atmosphere is composed of about 78% nitrogen,2 a lot of radiocarbon atoms are produced—in total about 16.5 pounds (7.5 kg) per year.
When animals eat the plants, the carbon-14 enters their bodies.
The carbon-14 in their bodies breaks down to nitrogen-14 and escapes at the same rate as new carbon-14 is added. CARBON-14 IS DEPLETED (Figure 1c): When an animal dies the carbon-14 continues to break down to nitrogen-14 and escapes, while no new carbon-14 is added.
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