A tale of two eras: Phytoplankton composition influenced by oceanic paleochemistry

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Journal Article
Geobiology, 2018, 16 (5), pp. 498 - 506
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© 2018 John Wiley & Sons Ltd We report the results of simple experiments which support the hypothesis that changes in ocean chemistry beginning in the Mesozoic Era resulted in an increase in the nutritional quality per mole of C and per cell of planktonic algal biomass compared to earlier phytoplankton. We cultured a cyanobacterium, a diatom, a dinoflagellate, and a green alga in media mimicking aspects of the chemistry of Palaeozoic and Mesozoic-Cenozoic oceans. Substantial differences emerged in the quality of algal biomass between the Palaeozoic and Mesozoic-Cenozoic growth regimes; these differences were strongly affected by interspecific interactions (i.e., the co-existence of different species alters responses to the chemistry of the medium). The change was in the direction of a Mesozoic-Cenozoic biomass enriched in protein per mole C, although cells contained less carbon overall. This would lead to a lower C:N ratio. On the assumption that Mesozoic-Cenozoic grazers’ assimilation of total C was similar to that of their earlier counterparts, their diet would be stoichiometrically closer to their C:N requirement. This, along with an increase in mean cell size among continental shelf phytoplankton, could have helped to facilitate observed evolutionary changes in the Mesozoic marine fauna. In turn, increased grazing pressure would have operated as a selective force for the radiation of phytoplankton clades better equipped with antigrazing capabilities (sensu lato), as found widely in phytoplankton with biomineralization. Our results emphasize potential links between changing seawater chemistry, increased predation pressure and the rise to ecological dominance of chlorophyll a+c algae in Mesozoic oceans. The experiments also suggest a potential role for ocean chemistry in changes of marine trophic structure from the Palaeozoic to the later Mesozoic Era.
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