Effect of seawater carbonate concentration on foraminiferal carbon and oxygen isotopes


Stable oxygen and carbon isotope measurements on biogenic calcite and aragonite have become standard tools for reconstructing past oceanographic and climatic change. In aquatic organisms, 18O/16O ratios in the shell carbonate are a function of the ratio in the sea water and the calcification temperature1. In contrast, 13C/12C ratios are controlled by the ratio of dissolved inorganic carbon in sea water and physiological processes such as respiration and symbiont photosynthesis2. These geochemical proxies have been used with analyses of foraminifera shells to reconstruct global ice volumes3, surface and deep ocean temperatures4,5, ocean circulation changes6 and glacial–interglacial exchange between the terrestrial and oceanic carbon pools7. Here, we report experimental measurements on living symbiotic and non-symbiotic plankton foraminifera (Orbulina universa and Globigerina bulloides respectively) showing that the 13C/12C and 18O/16O ratios of the calcite shells decrease with increasing seawater [CO32−]. Because glacial-period oceans had higher pH and [CO32−] than today8, these new relationships confound the standard interpretation of glacial foraminiferal stable-isotope data. In particular, the hypothesis that the glacial–interglacial shift in the 13C/12C ratio was due to a transfer of terrestrial carbon into the ocean7 can be explained alternatively by an increase in ocean alkalinity25. A carbonate-concentration effect could also help explain some of the extreme stable-isotope variations during the Proterozoic and Phanerozoic aeons9.

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Figure 1: Effect of [CO32−] on the δ13C and δ18O values of Orbulina universa shell calcite under conditions of constant alkalinity (a and b) and constant Σ;CO2 (c and d) conditions.
Figure 2: Effect of [CO32−] on the δ13C and δ18O values of Globigerina bulloides chamber calcite under constant Σ;CO2 conditions.
Figure 3: Comparison of foraminiferal δ13C and δ18O data from all experiments with data from the nonsymbiotic coral, Tubastrea spp. (ref. 15).
Figure 4: Comparison of high light and dark O universa δ18O data from the constant alkalinity (CA) experiment with inorganic precipitate results from McCrea18.


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We thank the staff of the Wrigley Institute of Environmental Science and E. Kincaid, C. Hamilton, J. Dailey, E. Komsky, T. Mashiotta, M. Uhle, A. Sanyal, D. Chan, E. Mochon and M. Cramer for their help in the field. Thanks also to A. Russell and D. Sumner for comments on the manuscript. This research was supported by the US National Science Foundation (H.J.S. and D.W.L.) and by SFB 261 and the Program for the Advancement of Special Research Projects at the Alfred Wegener Institute, Germany (J.B.).

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Correspondence to Howard J. Spero.

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Spero, H., Bijma, J., Lea, D. et al. Effect of seawater carbonate concentration on foraminiferal carbon and oxygen isotopes. Nature 390, 497–500 (1997). https://doi.org/10.1038/37333

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