Vital effects in coccolith calcite: Cenozoic climate-pCO2 drove the diversity of carbon acquisition strategies in coccolithophores?



[1] Coccoliths, calcite plates produced by the marine phytoplankton coccolithophores, have previously shown a large array of carbon and oxygen stable isotope fractionations (termed “vital effects”), correlated to cell size and hypothesized to reflect the varying importance of active carbon acquisition strategies. Culture studies show a reduced range of vital effects between large and small coccolithophores under high CO2, consistent with previous observations of a smaller range of interspecific vital effects in Paleocene coccoliths. We present new fossil data examining coccolithophore vital effects over three key Cenozoic intervals reflecting changing climate and atmospheric partial pressure of CO2 (pCO2). Oxygen and carbon stable isotopes of size-separated coccolith fractions dominated by different species from well preserved Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum (PETM, ∼56 Ma) samples show reduced interspecific differences within the greenhouse boundary conditions of the PETM. Conversely, isotope data from the Plio-Pleistocene transition (PPT; 3.5–2 Ma) and the last glacial maximum (LGM; ∼22 ka) show persistent vital effects of ∼2‰. PPT and LGM data show a clear positive trend between coccolith (cell) size and isotopic enrichment in coccolith carbonate, as seen in laboratory cultures. On geological timescales, the degree of expression of vital effects in coccoliths appears to be insensitive topCO2 changes over the range ∼350 ppm (Pliocene) to ∼180 ppm (LGM). The modern array of coccolith vital effects arose after the PETM but before the late Pliocene and may reflect the operation of more diverse carbon acquisition strategies in coccolithophores in response to decreasing Cenozoic pCO2.