Exploring aberrant bivalve shell ultrastructure and geochemistry as proxies for past sea water acidification



Throughout much of Earth's history, marine carbonates have represented one of the most important geological archives of environmental change. Several pivotal events during the Phanerozoic, such as mass extinctions or hyperthermal events have recently been associated with ocean acidification. Nevertheless, well-defined geological proxies for past ocean acidification events are, at best, scarce. Here, experimental work explores the response of bivalve shell ultrastructure and isotope geochemistry (δ13C, δ18O and δ26Mg) to stressful environments, in particular to sea water acidification. In this study, the common blue mussel, Mytilus edulis, was cultured (from early juvenile stages to one year of age) at four pH regimes (pHNBS 7·2 to pH 8·0). Shell growth rate and ultrastructure of mainly the calcitic portion of the shells were compared between experimental treatments. Specimens exposed to low-pH environments show patches of disordered calcitic fibre orientation in otherwise well-structured shells. Furthermore, the electron backscattered diffraction analyses reveal that, under acidified conditions, the c-axis of the calcite prisms exhibits a bimodal or multi-modal distribution pattern. Similar shell disorder patterns have been reported from mytilids kept under naturally acidified sea water conditions. In contrast, this study found no evidence that different pH regimes affect shell carbon, oxygen or magnesium isotope ratios. Based on these observations, it is proposed that: (i) stressful environments, in this case low sea water pH, predictably affect bivalve biomineralization patterns; and (ii) these findings bear potential as a novel (petrographic) proxy for ancient sea water acidification. An assessment of the applicability of these data to well-preserved fossil shell material from selected time intervals requires additional work.