Carbon and oxygen isotope fractionation in scleractinian corals: a review

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265 Scopus citations


The present theories on the fractionation of stable isotopes in scleractinian corals are critically discussed in the light of data available on primary productivity, respiration and stable isotope chemistry. These data support a model of fractionation in which the carbon and oxygen isotopes are decoupled. Calcification occurs from a reservoir of carbon dioxide derived from both organic and inorganic sources. Photosynthesis preferentially fixes 13C and thereby leaves behind 13C. Increases in the rate of photosynthesis therefore also enrich the carbon isotope ratio of the skeleton. From theoretical considerations, photosynthesis has little effect on the oxygen isotope ratio of the skeleton, a fact confirmed by available data. The process of respiration adds depleted carbon and oxygen to the calcification reservoirs. The varying correlations between carbon and oxygen isotopes seen in hermatypic corals are caused by changes in the relationship between photosynthesis and respiration at different geographical localities. The isotopic compositions in the skeletons of non-zooxanthellate corals, which show a consistent positive correlation, can also be explained by the above scenario.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)51-80
Number of pages30
JournalEarth Science Reviews
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1983
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Earth and Planetary Sciences(all)


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