The evolution of mid Paleocene – early Eocene coral communities: how to survive during rapid global warming

Today, diverse communities of zooxanthellate corals thrive, but do not build reef, under a wide range of environmental conditions. In these settings they inhabit natural bottom communities, sometimes forming patch-reefs, coral carpets and knobs. Episodes in the fossil record, characterized by limited coral-reef development but widespread occurrence of coral-bearing carbonates, may represent the fossil analogues of these non-reef building, zooxanthellate coral communities. If so, the study of these corals could have valuable implications for paleoenvironmental reconstructions. Here we focus on the evolution of early Paleogene corals as a fossil example of coral communities mainly composed by zooxanthellate corals (or likely zooxanthellate), commonly occurring within carbonate biofacies and with relatively high diversity but with a limited bioconstructional potential as testified by the reduced record of coral reefs. We correlate changes of bioconstructional potential and community compositions of these fossil corals with the main ecological/environmental conditions at that time. The early Paleogene greenhouse climate was characterized by relatively short pulses of warming with the most prominent occurring at the Paleocene-Eocene boundary (PETM event), associated with high weathering rates, nutrient fluxes, and pCO2 levels. A synthesis of coral occurrences integrated with our data from the Adriatic Carbonate Platform (SW Slovenia) and the Minervois region (SW France), provide evidence for temporal changes in the reef-building capacity of corals associated with a shift in community composition towards forms adapted to tolerate deteriorating sea-water conditions. During the middle Paleocene coral-algal patch reefs and barrier reefs occurred from shallow-water settings, locally with reef-crest structures. A first shift can be traced from middle Paleocene to late Paleocene, with small coral-algal patch reefs and coral-bearing mounds development in shallow to intermediate water depths. In these mounds corals were highly subordinated as bioconstructors to other groups tolerant to higher levels of trophic resources (calcareous red algae, encrusting foraminifera, microbes, and sponges). A second shift occurred at the onset of the early Eocene with a further reduction of coral framework-building capacity. These coral communities mainly formed knobs in shallow-water, turbid settings associated with abundant foraminiferal deposits. We suggest that environmental conditions other than high temperature determined a combination of interrelated stressors that limited the coral-reef construction. A continuous enhancement of sediment load/nutrients combined with geochemical changes of ocean waters likely displaced corals as the main bioconstructors during the late Paleocene-early Eocene times. Nonetheless, these conditions did not affect the capacity of some corals to colonize the substrate, maintain biodiversity, and act as locally important carbonate-sediment producers, suggesting broad environmental tolerance limits of various species of corals. The implications of this study include clues as to how both ancient and modern zooxanthellate corals could respond to changing climate.

Zamagni J., Mutti M., & Košir A., in press. The evolution of mid Paleocene – early Eocene coral communities: how to survive during rapid global warming. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. doi:10.1016/j.palaeo.2011.12.010. Article (subscription required).

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