Coccolithophores on the north-west European shelf: calcification rates and environmental controls

Coccolithophores are a key functional group in terms of the pelagic production of calcium carbonate (calcite), although their contribution to shelf-sea biogeochemistry, and how this relates to environmental conditions, is poorly constrained. Measurements of calcite production (CP) and coccolithophore abundance were made on the north-west European shelf to examine trends in coccolithophore calcification along natural gradients of carbonate chemistry, macronutrient availability and plankton composition. Similar measurements were also made in three bioassay experiments where nutrient (nitrate, phosphate) and pCO2 levels were manipulated. Nanoflagellates (<10 µm) dominated chlorophyll biomass and primary production (PP) at all but one sampling site, with CP ranging from 0.6–9.6 mmolCm-2d-1. Highest CP and coccolithophore cell abundance occurred in a diatom bloom in fully mixed waters off Helgoland, rather than in two distinct coccolithophore blooms in the central North Sea and Western English Channel. Estimates of coccolithophore contributions to total PP and nanoplankton PP were generally <5 %, apart from in a coccolithophore bloom at the Western English Channel Observatory (E1) where coccolithophores contributed up to 11 % and at Helgoland where they contributed ∼23 % to nanoplankton PP. Variability in CP was influenced by cell numbers, species composition and cell-normalised calcification rates under both in situ conditions and in the experimental bioassays. Water column structure and light availability had a strong influence on cellular calcification, whereas nitrate (N) to phosphate (P) ratios influenced bulk CP. Coccolithophore communities in the northern North Sea and over the Norwegian Trench showed responses to N and P addition whereas oceanic communities in the Bay of Biscay showed no response. Sharp decreases in pH and a rough halving of calcite saturation states in the bioassay experiments led to decreased CP in the Bay of Biscay and Northern North Sea, but not over the Norwegian Trench. These variable relationships to nutrient availability and changes in carbonate chemistry highlight the complex response of coccolithophore physiology to growth environment.


Poulton A. J., Stinchcombe M. C., Achterberg E. P., Bakker D. C. E., Dumousseaud C., Lawson H. E., Lee G. A., Richier S., Suggett D. J. & Young J. R., 2014. Biogeosciences Discussions 11:2685-2733. Article.


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