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Species-specific growth response of coccolithophores to Palaeocene–Eocene environmental change


Coccolithophores—single-celled calcifying phytoplankton—represent an essential footing to marine ecosystems, yet their sensitivity to environmental change, and in particular increases in atmospheric CO2, is poorly understood1. During the Palaeocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), about 56 million years ago, atmospheric CO2 concentrations rose rapidly and the oceans acidified2,3, making this an ideal time interval to examine coccolithophore responses to environmental change. Here we compare the results of experiments on modern coccolithophore species with exceptional fossil coccosphere records of the PETM, providing a cellular-level perspective. In modern taxa, we find that during the exponential growth phase of rapid cell division, small cells with few coccoliths are produced, whereas larger cells with more coccoliths are produced during slowed cell division. Applying these diagnostic features to the PETM fossil record, we find that the dominant species exhibited different growth responses to the environmental forcing. Toweius pertusus shows geometry indicative of rapid cell division. In contrast, we suggest that cells of Coccolithus pelagicus grew more slowly during the period of environmental change. In the modern ocean, Emiliania huxleyi, which is closely related to the extinct T. pertusus, is prolific and widespread, whereas C. pelagicus is more limited in range and abundance. We argue that these different responses to environmental change were critical to the post-PETM evolutionary success of the descendants of these taxa.

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Figure 1: SEM images of fossil and modern coccospheres utilized in this study.
Figure 2: Coccosphere data from fossil T. pertusus, C. pelagicus and small Toweius sp. and cultured C. pelagicus braarudii.
Figure 3: Comparison of C. pelagicus φ and CLwith cells subdivided according to CN to give an indication of recently divided cells (CN≤8) and cells growing slowly/unable to divide (CN≥16).
Figure 4: Comparison of C. pelagicus populations as characterized by their abundance of CN≤8 and CN≥16 cells.


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The authors would like to acknowledge research support from the Royal Society through a University Research Fellowship to S.J.G., from the Natural Environment Research Council through a Post-doctoral Fellowship to A.J.P. (NE/F015054/1) and studentships to S.A.O., J.H. and C.J.D. and a research experience placement for C.N., and an added value grant from the UK Ocean Acidification programme (which includes funding from NERC, DECC and DEFRA). Part of this collaborative research between modern and palaeo research arose as a result of the UKOA project and we thank the consortium group principal investigators (P. Pearson, G. Foster and T. Tyrell) and also the UKOA project manager P. Williamson. We would also like to thank I. Probert for advice on coccolithophore culturing, R. Pearce for assistance with SEM imaging, and M. Coupel, J. Hurst, E. Maher, R. Lampitt, S. Ward and C. Marsay for assistance in collection and analysis of water and sediment trap samples from the Iceland Basin in 2010. Thanks also to D. Iglesias-Rodriguez and C. Newe for invaluable discussions, E. J. Rohling for manuscript editing, and A. Westmacott and Olympus Keymed for hardware and software support.

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S.J.G., P.R.B. and A.J.P. conceived and designed the research and experiments, with advice from J.R.Y. S.J.G. performed all biometric analyses; A.J.P., J.H. and C.J.D. performed the culture experiments, collected daily cell counts and imaged samples under SEM. P.R.B. performed fossil SEM imaging. H.L.J., G.J.T., S.A.O. and C.N. provided further fossil biometric data. S.J.G., A.J.P., P.R.B. and J.R.Y. interpreted findings and wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Samantha J. Gibbs.

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Gibbs, S., Poulton, A., Bown, P. et al. Species-specific growth response of coccolithophores to Palaeocene–Eocene environmental change. Nature Geosci 6, 218–222 (2013).

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