Late Pleistocene and Holocene distribution of Mytilus edulis in the Barents Sea region and its palaeoclimatic implications


Jesper Hansen, Kaare Moursunds Veg 11A, NO-9007 Tromsø, Norway.


Aim  For decades, subfossil shells of the bivalve Mytilus edulis Linnaeus, 1758 in Svalbard have been taken as evidence of higher surface temperatures during the early Holocene because the modern northern occurrence of this mollusc was, until recently, in the southern Barents Sea. Here, we elucidate and discuss the spatial and temporal Late Pleistocene and Holocene distribution of the species within the entire Barents Sea region.

Location  The Barents Sea region.

Methods  Radiocarbon dates of Mytilus shells from the Barents Sea region and information about the present distribution of the species were compiled, including two new radiocarbon dates from north-eastern Spitsbergen. The dataset was divided into time slices, each covering 1000 years, and compared with Holocene temperature variations, ocean current systems and present-day temperature patterns.

Results  Maps show the Late Pleistocene and Holocene spatial and temporal distribution of Mytilus edulis in the Barents Sea region. M. edulis was already present in northern Norway about 14,000 cal. yr bp. It appeared at western Spitsbergen about 11,000 cal. yr bp, and slowly spread to the rest of the archipelago. The maximum distribution in the region was reached 10,000–7000 cal. yr bp, coinciding with the Holocene climatic optimum. The species gradually disappeared in the late Holocene and became absent from the northern and eastern parts of the region 3000–1000 cal. yr bp. Today, M. edulis lives in the southern part and has begun to recolonize the northern parts.

Main conclusions  The time slices illustrate strong connections between the ocean current regimes, the climate and the distribution of M. edulis. The species settled in the southern part of the Barents Sea region several thousand years before it spread to the northern part during the Holocene climatic optimum. It may even have been completely absent from the region for a short time during the late Holocene cold period. The Holocene distribution of Mytilus implies that the underlying pattern of coastal sea surface temperatures in the region was very stable.