In geological outcrops and drill cores from reef frameworks, the skeletons of scleractinian corals are usually leached and more or less completely transformed into sparry calcite because the highly porous skeletons formed of metastable aragonite (CaCO3) undergo rapid diagenetic alteration. Upon alteration, ghost structures of the distinct annual growth bands may be retained allowing for reconstructions of annual extension (= growth) rates, but information on skeletal density needed for reconstructions of calcification rates is invariably lost. Here we report the first data of calcification rates of fossil reef corals which escaped diagenetic alteration. The corals derive from unlithified shallow water carbonates of the Florida platform (southeastern USA), which formed during four interglacial sea level highstands dated 3.2, 2.9, 1.8, and 1.2 Ma in the mid Pliocene to early Pleistocene. With regard to the preservation, the coral skeletons display smooth growth surfaces with minor volumes of marine aragonite cement within intra-skeletal porosity. Within the skeletal structures, dissolution is minor along centers of calcification. Mean extension rates were 0.44 ± 0.19 cm yr-1 (range 0.16 to 0.86 cm yr-1) and mean bulk density was 0.86 ± 0.36 g cm-3 (range 0.55 to 1.22 g cm-3). Correspondingly, calcification rates ranged from 0.18 to 0.82 g cm-2 yr-1 (mean 0.38 ± 0.16 g cm-2 yr-1), values which are 50 % of modern shallow-water reef corals. To understand the possible mechanisms behind these low calcification rates, we compared the fossil calcification with modern zooxanthellate-coral (z-coral) rates from the Western Atlantic (WA) and Indo-Pacific (IP) calibrated against sea surface temperature (SST). In the fossil data, we found an analogous relationship with SST in z-corals from the WA, i.e. density increases and extension rate decreases with increasing SST, but over a significantly larger temperature window during the Plio-Pleistocene. With regard to the environment of coral growth, stable isotope proxy data from the fossil corals and the overall structure of the ancient shallow marine communities are consistent with a well-mixed, open marine environment similar to the present-day Florida Reef Tract, but variably affected by intermittent upwelling. Upwelling along the platform may explain low rates of reef coral calcification and inorganic cementation, but is too localized to account for low extension rates of Pliocene z-corals recorded throughout the tropical Caribbean in the western Atlantic region. Low aragonite saturation on a more global scale in response to rapid glacial/interglacial CO2 cyclicity is also a potential factor, but Plio-Pleistocene atmospheric ρCO2 is believed to have been broadly similar to the present-day. Heat stress related to globally high interglacial SST, only episodically moderated by intermittent upwelling affecting the Florida platform seems to be the most likely reason for low calcification rates. From these observations we suggest some present coral reef systems to be endangered from future ocean warming.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
- Earth-Surface Processes