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 (116–114 Myr 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.
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