Fossil coccolith morphological attributes as a new proxy for deep ocean carbonate chemistry

Understanding the variations in past ocean carbonate chemistry is critical to elucidating the role of the oceans in balancing the global carbon cycle. The fossil shells from marine calcifiers present in the sedimentary record are widely applied as past ocean carbon cycle proxies. However, the interpretation of these records can be challenging due to the complex physiological and ecological response to the carbonate system during an organisms’ life cycle and the potential for preservation at the seafloor. Here we present a new dissolution proxy based on the morphological attributes of coccolithophores from the Noëlaerhabdaceae family (Emiliania huxleyi > 2 µm, and small Gephyrocapsa spp.). To evaluate the influences of coccolithophore calcification and coccolith preservation on fossil morphology, we measured morphological attributes, mass, length, thickness, and shape factor (ks) of coccoliths in a laboratory dissolution experiment and surface sediment samples from the South China Sea. The coccolith morphological data in surface sediments were also analyzed with environment settings, namely surface temperature, nutrients, pH, chlorophyll a concentration, and carbonate saturation of bottom water by a redundancy analysis. Statistical analysis indicates that carbonate saturation of the deep ocean explains the highest proportion of variation in the morphological data instead of the environmental variables of the surface ocean. Moreover, the dissolution trajectory in the ks vs. length of coccoliths is comparable between natural samples and laboratory dissolution experiments, emphasizing the importance of carbonate saturation on fossil coccolith morphology. However, the mean ks alone cannot fully explain the main variations observed in our work. We propose that the normalized ks variation (), which is the ratio between the standard deviation of ks (σ) and the mean ks, could reflect different degrees of dissolution and size-selective dissolution, influenced by the assemblage composition. Applied together with the  ratio, the ks factor of fossil coccoliths in deep ocean sediments could be a potential proxy for a quantitative reconstruction of past carbonate dissolution dynamics.

Gerotto A., Zhang H., Nagai R. H., Stoll H. M., Figueira R. C. L., Liu C. & Hernández-Almeida I., 2023. Fossil coccolith morphological attributes as a new proxy for deep ocean carbonate chemistry. Biogeosciences 20: 725–1739. doi: 10.5194/bg-20-1725-2023. Article.

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