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Composition of the early Oligocene ocean from coral stable isotope and elemental chemistry


Corresponding author: Linda C. Ivany. Tel.: (315) 443–3626; fax: (315) 443 3363: email:


A sectioned and polished specimen of the coral Archohelia vicksburgensis from the early Oligocene Byram Formation (∼30 Ma) near Vicksburg, Mississippi, reveals 12 prominent annual growth bands. Stable oxygen isotopic compositions of 77 growth-band-parallel microsamples of original aragonite exhibit well-constrained fluctuations that range between −2.0 and −4.8. Variation in δ18O of coral carbonate reflects seasonal variation in temperature ranging from 12 to 24 °C about a mean of 18 °C. These values are consistent with those derived from a bivalve and a fish otolith from the same unit, each using independently derived palaeotemperature equations. Mg/Ca and Sr/Ca ratios were determined for 40 additional samples spanning five of the 12 annual bands. Palaeotemperatures calculated using elemental-ratio thermometers calibrated on modern corals are consistently lower; mean temperature from Mg/Ca ratios are 12.5 ± 1 °C while those from Sr/Ca are 5.8 ± 2.2 °C. Assuming that δ18O-derived temperatures are correct, relationships between temperature and elemental ratio for corals growing in today's ocean can be used to estimate Oligocene palaeoseawater Mg/Ca and Sr/Ca ratios. Calculations indicate that early Oligocene seawater Mg/Ca was ∼81% (4.2 mol mol−1) and Sr/Ca ∼109% (9.9 mmol mol−1) of modern values. Oligocene seawater with this degree of Mg depletion and Sr enrichment is in good agreement with that expected during the Palaeogene transition from ‘calcite’ to ‘aragonite’ seas. Lower Oligocene Mg/Ca probably reflects a decrease toward the present day in sea-floor hydrothermal activity and concomitant decrease in scavenging of magnesium from seawater. Elevated Sr/Ca ratio may record lesser amounts of Oligocene aragonite precipitation and a correspondingly lower flux of strontium into the sedimentary carbonate reservoir than today.