Atlantic cooling associated with a marine biotic crisis during the mid-Cretaceous period

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Nature Geoscience
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Most of the marine biotic crises that occurred during the hot Mesozoic era have been linked to episodes of extreme warmth1, 2. Others, however, may have occurred during cooler intervals that interrupted Cretaceous greenhouse warmth3, 4, 5. There are some indications of cooling in the late Aptian6, 7, 8 (116–114Myr ago), but it has not been definitively linked to biotic crisis. Here we assess the timing and magnitude of late Aptian cooling and its association with biotic crises using a suite of geochemical and micropalaeontological assessments from a marine sediment core from the North Atlantic Ocean as well as global biogeochemical modelling. Sea surface temperatures derived from the TEX86 proxy suggest that surface waters cooled by about 5°C during the two million years, coincident with a positive δ13C excursion of approximately 2‰ in carbonates and organic carbon. Surface productivity was enhanced during this period, but the abundance of planktonic foraminifera and nannoconid phytoplankton declined. Our simulations with a biogeochemical model indicate that the δ13C excursion associated with the cooling could be explained by the burial of about 812,000 gigatons of carbon over 2.5 million years. About 50% of the this carbon burial occurred in the Atlantic, Southern and Tethys ocean basins. We conclude that global cooling during greenhouse conditions can cause perturbations to marine ecosystems and biogeochemical cycles at scales comparable to those associated with global warming.

At a glance


  1. Palaeogeographic setting of late Aptian Deep Sea Drilling Project Site 545, Mazagan Plateau.
    Figure 1: Palaeogeographic setting of late Aptian Deep Sea Drilling Project Site 545, Mazagan Plateau.

    Reconstruction of the early–mid Cretaceous Atlantic Ocean, Southern Ocean and western Tethys region27, 28 (Supplementary Information) illustrating the progressive opening of the equatorial Atlantic gateway and all ocean basins for four time periods of the Cretaceous.

  2. High-resolution geochemical records.
    Figure 2: High-resolution geochemical records.

    ad, Carbonate (a) and organic carbon (b) isotopes, TEX86 SSTs (c) with associated analytical and calibration errors (Supplementary Information), and total organic carbon (TOC) concentration (d). Biostratigraphy and ages for biozones2, 8, 9, 14, LIP volcanism (Supplementary Information), and both carbon and carbonate isotope data29, 30 are compiled from various sources including new data generated for this study. Climate cycles and the late Aptian cold snap, as discussed in the text, are shown alongside two high-temperature events, HTE and OAE1b (refs 7, 29, 30), which are shown as grey bars.

  3. Marine biotic response to late Aptian cooling.
    Figure 3: Marine biotic response to late Aptian cooling.

    a, Carbonate carbon isotopes. b, SST estimates (based on TEX86). c, Percentages of the boreal cold-water taxon Repagulum parvidentatum. d, Percentages of deep-dwelling nannoconids relative to total calcareous nannofossils. e, Nannofossil-based nutrient index17. f, Percentages of planktic foraminifera relative to total foraminifera2.


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Author information


  1. Department of Geology and Mineralogy, University of Cologne, 50674 Cologne, Germany

    • A. McAnena,
    • P. Hofmann &
    • J. Rethemeyer
  2. GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, Wischhofstr. 1-3, 24148 Kiel, Germany

    • S. Flögel &
    • K. Wallmann
  3. Institute of Geosciences, Goethe-University Frankfurt, D-60438 Frankfurt am Main, Germany

    • J. O. Herrle,
    • A. Griesand &
    • J. Pross
  4. Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre (BIK-F), D-60325 Frankfurt am Main, Germany

    • J. O. Herrle,
    • A. Griesand &
    • J. Pross
  5. School of Civil Engineering and Geosciences, Newcastle University, Newcastle Upon Tyne, NE1 7RU, UK

    • H. M. Talbot &
    • T. Wagner
  6. Present address: Institute of Marine and Coastal Science, Rutgers The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, New Jersey 08901, USA

    • A. McAnena


S.F., J.O.H., P.H., J.P., K.W. and T.W. designed the study; S.F., A.G, A.M., J.R., H.M.T. and K.W. performed analyses and contributed to the discussion; S.F., P.H., J.O.H., A.M. and T.W. wrote the paper, with overall coordination by T.W.

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