Scientists discover link between climate change and biological evolution of phytoplankton

International team’s findings follow the astronomical pacing of Earth’s orbit

Peer-Reviewed Publication


Emergence of new species of the coccolithophere

New Brunswick, N.J. (Dec. 1, 2021) – Using artificial intelligence techniques, an international team that included Rutgers-New Brunswick researchers have traced the evolution of coccolithophores, an ocean-dwelling phytoplankton group, over 2.8 million years.

Their findings, published this week in the journal Nature, reveal new evidence that evolutionary cycles in a marine phytoplankton group are related to changes in tropical seasonality, shedding light on the link between biological evolution and climate change. 

Coccolithophores are abundant single-celled organisms that surround themselves with microscopic plates made of calcium carbonate, called coccoliths. Due to their photosynthetic activity, mineral production and widespread abundance throughout the world’s oceans, coccolithophores play an important role in the carbon cycle.

Scientists have long thought that climate changes’ effects on plants, animals and other organisms occur in cycles, which are reversed when each cycle is completed, thus erasing any small evolutionary changes during each cycle. In contrast, evolutionary changes, as known from the fossil record, are non-cyclic trends that occur over millions of years. 

But the researchers’ new study shows that evolutionary cycles in coccolithophores are attributed to changes in tropical seasonality related to shifts in the Earth’s orbit that occur about every 400,000 years. The study may also offer a new understanding of the approximately 400,000 year-long variations in records of the oceans’ carbon cycle. 

“The production of calcium carbonate by these prolific coccolithophore species likely impacted the chemistry of seawater and the oceanic carbon cycle, which in turn could have significant consequences for Earth’s climate through the ocean influence on the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide,” said the study’s co-author Yair Rosenthal, a Distinguished professor at Rutgers.

The researchers used AI techniques to study the shape of nearly nine million coccoliths from more than 8,000 samples, each representing a point in geological time or space, tracing coccolithophore evolution over 2.8 million years. The samples came from tropical sediment cores from the ocean floor recovered during scientific drilling expeditions.

Automated optical microscopes captured the images, from which species are recognized and their size and weight measured. These size and weight records revealed the presence of cycles lasting 100,000 years and 400,000 years, which correspond to variations in the shape of the rotation of the Earth around the sun, known as the eccentricity of the Earth’s orbit. Unexpectedly, these cycles are not the same length as those followed by global climate cycles and glaciations over the last 2.8 million years. 

“The eccentricity cycles have multiple effects on the earth,” said Luc Beaufort, a lead author of the study. “One of the little-known effects is the periodic appearance of seasons at the equator. At the present time, when Earth follows an almost circular orbit, the equator experiences a very weak change in seasons, but when the orbit is eccentric and shaped more like an ellipse than a circle, seasonal changes in tropical regions become stronger.”  

This effect on tropical seasonality is different than the cause of seasonality at higher latitudes, which is driven primarily by the inclination of the earth’s axis of rotation.

“We modelled the effects of changing seasonality driven by eccentricity in the tropical ocean, demonstrating that the effects on marine ecosystems are significant and could explain the adaptation of coccolithophores to new niches created by these cyclical seasonal conditions,” said Clara Bolton, a co-author of the study.

The study included researchers from Rutgers-New Brunswick in the USA and the Centre for Research and Teaching in Environmental Geoscience (CEREGE) in France.

Rutgers University–New Brunswick is where Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, began more than 250 years ago. Ranked among the world’s top 60 universities, Rutgers’s flagship is a leading public research institution and a member of the prestigious Association of American Universities. It has an internationally acclaimed faculty, 12 degree-granting schools and the Big Ten Conference’s most diverse student body.






Case study


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Cyclic evolution of phytoplankton forced by changes in tropical seasonality



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Zig Zag Wanderer
December 1, 2021 10:38 pm

which in turn could have significant consequences for Earth’s climate through the ocean influence on the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide

It was all so sensible up to this point

Reply to  Zig Zag Wanderer
December 1, 2021 11:45 pm

”which in turn COULD have….”
You know, just like aliens COULD attack the Earth at any time or I COULD live to 115 …..

Reply to  Mike
December 2, 2021 3:23 am

Would that were all, but they carry on….

Smart Rock
Reply to  Mike
December 2, 2021 3:50 am

I keep reading comments like this on WUWT, denigrating the use of “could” and “may” in scientific publications and downstream news articles. But this is the way you have to phrase a hypothesis that you’ve generated from your studies. These authors haven’t actually PROVED anything, but they have made new observations, from which they postulate a hypothesis relating apparent cyclical changes in phenotype to orbital cycles. Interesting stuff, especially if you’re into paleontology. And definitely a cut above a lot of the pulp we see in print these days.

And note how they say “could have significant consequences for Earth’s climate through the ocean influence on the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide” (my bold and underline). This is what climate realists have been saying for decades – ocean changes are major drivers of atmospheric CO2 levels. The bit about “Earth’s climate” – well you have to say that if you want your next research grant, doncha?

I feel a bit queasy reading about “artificial intelligence” and “automated microscopes” but that’s the way things are as the digital world moves into its mature phase. Me, I’ll stick with rocks from the Precambrian, which is where I seem to belong.

PS – are we still allowed to say “denigrate”?

Reply to  Smart Rock
December 2, 2021 4:39 am

I denigrate you lack of understanding of what the “scientists” are trying to do.
They and the supposed science writers are implying that what they are guessing, aka farting out their @$$, is the gospel truth.
They are not saying maybe. They are saying,
WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE! if you don’t increase my funding.

Doug Danhoff
Reply to  Smart Rock
December 2, 2021 6:44 am

The problem here is not with the “could”. You say it well, smart rock, this is how a research paper should be constructed ,presenting possibilities. My problem is the critical assumption of CO2 driving the climate, instead of,in reality, being the waste product of increasing or decreasing temperature .
Without the incontestable fact that levels of carbon dioxide FOLLOW temperature change . As a geologist it is one of the most obvious processes in science .
The great fault with most commentators on Climate is short sightedness. The geologist ,by definition , is looking at a bigger picture . Only then does the focus become clear.
The causation of climate changes can only be understood when the physics of the carbon cycle is correctly understood .

Abolition Man
Reply to  Smart Rock
December 2, 2021 7:02 am

Smart Rock,
You can only use “denigrate” when you are attacking conservatives or other types of heretics; any other use is strictly forbidden!
I believe that Zig Zag Wanderer was trying point out the fallacy of the authors still ascribing magical powers to CO2; it is obvious that the oceans are huge sinks for both CO2 and heat!
What I find astounding is the continued ignoring of the nearly 150,000,000 year DECREASE in CO2 due to biomineralization and other processes! If humans are stupid enough to waste time and treasure on lowering levels of the Gas of Life, then we only hasten the day when ALL life could perish due to it’s paucity, not it’s abundance!

Reply to  Abolition Man
December 5, 2021 12:41 pm

“it is obvious that the oceans are huge sinks for both CO2 and heat!”

Henry. Dalton. Either-or. Not both.


Reply to  Smart Rock
December 2, 2021 8:22 pm

“Denigrate” is no longer politically correct but you can still “renigrate” as in “I’ll be going to the beaches of Costa Rica this winter to renigrate before I lose my person of colour status at the CBC”.

Julian Flood
Reply to  Smart Rock
December 3, 2021 2:06 am

ocean changes are major drivers of atmospheric CO2 levels.”

Yes! This should be written of every climate scientist’s shaving mirror. And things that change on land, in the atmosphere, on the Sun, cosmic ray flux etc etc affect the oceans.

Sorry, I’m only allowed one uptick.


Julian Flood
Reply to  Julian Flood
December 3, 2021 2:45 am


Reply to  Smart Rock
December 5, 2021 12:34 pm

I’ll give you a point for “hypothesis”.

My own hypothesis would be that we have seen peak climate hypothesis?


Reply to  Zig Zag Wanderer
December 2, 2021 4:41 am

Or it couldn’t. We won’t know until you fund me until I retire rich on OPM.

Reply to  Zig Zag Wanderer
December 2, 2021 2:07 pm

Before I read the first comment, I copied the same portion. Cleary the magic of CO2.

We have to stop this utter nonsense. There is no “greenhouse effect” causing a delicate energy balance;ance on Earth.

The energy balance is the result of powerful temperature regulating processes.

They even have the ocean warming wrong. It is simple retaining more heat as the insolation difference between land masses and oceans reduces slightly under the influence of the orbital precession.

The idea of missing heart in the oceans is laughably ill-informed. Oceans retain more heat when the net evaporation reduces. That process was set in train in 1585, the last year when perihelion occurred before the austral summer solstice.

December 1, 2021 10:48 pm

how exciting they have found another cycle to go with the
Nitrogen cycle
the ammonia cycle
the phosphate cycle
the carbon cycle
the iron cycle

they could have proved intelligence but yet again they fail

Reply to  John
December 1, 2021 11:02 pm

They do however understand the monetary cycle.

Reply to  lee
December 2, 2021 4:35 am

Their own only.

Reply to  John
December 2, 2021 2:37 am

And the alarmist cycle: condensation trails, supersonic transport, ozone holes, ice ages, CO2, overpopulation, overheating, sea levels, coral reefs etc. etc

Reply to  Kirschberg
December 2, 2021 2:46 am

forgot polar bears, sorry.

Joao Martins
Reply to  John
December 2, 2021 2:57 am

You forgot the bicycle (after the end of fossil fuels).

Reply to  Joao Martins
December 2, 2021 3:18 am

That’s the anthropokyklos.
Not to be confused with the anthropokyklosklan.

December 1, 2021 11:45 pm

“At the present time, when Earth follows an almost circular orbit,”

“When Earth’s orbit is at its most elliptic, about 23 percent more incoming solar radiation reaches Earth at our planet’s closest approach to the Sun each year than does at its farthest departure from the Sun. Currently, Earth’s eccentricity is near its least elliptic (most circular) and is very slowly decreasing, in a cycle that spans about 100,000 years.
That means each January, about 6.8 percent more incoming solar radiation reaches Earth than it does each July.”

1.5 Watts/m2 increase in DWLIR from an increase in CO2 from 400ppm to 500ppm.

Which is more important?

Richard M
Reply to  Pablo
December 2, 2021 5:20 am

1.5 Watts/m2 increase in DWLIR from an increase in CO2 from 400ppm to 500ppm.

That number is incorrect as it does not include the reaction from the atmosphere to the DWLWIR. As per Newton’s 3rd law, for every action there is a reaction. This is the science that is ignored to create the greenhouse warming myth.

Reply to  Richard M
December 2, 2021 6:46 am

A good example of which is atmospheric water vapour’s radiative absorption of upward surface IR, mostly in the first 100 meters, that stimulates convection during the day. Extra energy into the atmosphere that would have otherwise been lost to space but with no extra heating of the surface as is often assumed from the so called greenhouse effect.

December 2, 2021 1:37 am

¨Unexpectedly, these cycles are not the same length as those followed by global climate cycles and glaciations over the last 2.8 million years. ¨
What exactly are they saying?

Reply to  bonbon
December 2, 2021 4:34 am

What difference does it make? h/t Hillary Clinton

December 2, 2021 1:37 am

Nice to see the two eccentricity cycles of 100k and 400k years showing up in the shape of coccolithophores.
I guess we can all go back to believing in the existence of Milankovitch cycles again 🙂

Odd that the journalists reporting this science are now calling Milankovitch cycles “climate change”. How muddled and confused is that?

“Climate change” as a term was meant to refer to the human caused component of climate change. Do these journos now believe that CO2 causes the Milankovitch cycles? It changes the orbit and spin of the earth? And Exxon knew, presumably?

Never read journalists homilies about research, mixed with their own prejudice and ignorance (hijacking it as their own platform) – always just go to the abstract directly.

Reply to  Hatter Eggburn
December 2, 2021 1:49 am

Can’t get the full report yet…

Peta of Newark
December 2, 2021 1:42 am

Yeah, but what caused what?

Boys will be Boys of course, it could *never* be Gaia at work could it?
Not in a trillion years – not even ten times that many $$$ either – best hang the blame on Dancing Angels and Phlogiston

December 2, 2021 3:58 am

What I really want to know is can they be turned into Syn-meat so we don’t have to eat bugs?

December 2, 2021 4:32 am

Gosh, you mean changes in weather affect orgamizisms? Who would have thought?
Damn, that is worth a Noble Prize.

Reply to  bluecat57
December 2, 2021 4:58 am

I think researchers are saying the opposite. Prolific coccolithophores “likely impacted the chemistry of seawater” and therefore could “have significant consequences for Earth’s climate…” We’re getting to root causes of climate change, no doubt.

Full disclosure: I am not a climate scientist, or any other kind of scientist, and I find the idea that pre-historic temperatures could be measured with any accuracy from tree rings to be absurd. I think “Mike’s trick” for “hiding the decline” bears that out.

Reply to  Tom Bowler
December 2, 2021 5:11 am

I’m not a scientist either.
What we read in layman’s terms is usually a complete misinterpretation of the study to fit the narrative of the person writing the article.
IMO “they” will never get close to the root causes of anything because their worldview gets in the way of their seeing truth.

Curious George
December 2, 2021 7:22 am

Link between climate change and – anything?
Did they discover a time when climate was not changing?

Rory Forbes
Reply to  Curious George
December 2, 2021 12:51 pm

I’m still waiting for them to demonstrate that Earth has a climate as opposed to a coupled, nonlinear chaotic system. Climates are local or regional, not global. Just because something can be observed in one location of the planet doesn’t mean that same thing can be found everywhere.

Thomas Gasloli
December 2, 2021 9:47 am

So, again, they used a model and declared the discovered & proved. There is no science anymore just science fiction.

Ed Fox
December 2, 2021 9:58 am

The tropics have wet and dry seasons.

Ed Fox
December 2, 2021 10:06 am

One step above street beggars, a small “investment” can buy a truckload of speculation.

December 2, 2021 11:33 am

Bull. It’s all semantics. Many falsehoods become true when you start changing definitions.

December 2, 2021 5:42 pm

Any two time based sequences will be ‘linked’ if they share the same timeframe. Whether the ‘link’ is causative or consequential is another matter entirely.

Julian Flood
December 3, 2021 2:42 am

Feynman teaches us that the beginning of science is a guess. Anyone is allowed to guess and then science begins.

When the tropics are exposed to seasonality the oceans are stirred more*, lifting nutrient-rich water from deeper down. This will provide the calcium needed for the Coccolithophores to make their calcite plates and enabling them to bloom in the same way as they do nearer the poles* in current conditions. Image searches of GuGl show what those look like.

Does a coccolithophore living in nutrient deficient conditions respond by getting smaller or larger? Your guess is as good as anyone’s.**

Some phytoplankton fix carbon by turning on a carbon concentration mechanism that discriminates less against C12/13 when dissolved CO2 levels are low. It would be useful to check the isotopic concentrations in those coccolithophores to see if they correlate with eccentricity. If phytos are responding to a low dissolved CO2 signal then stable tropics should show an increased light isotope signal in the atmosphere*, seasonal tropics should not*.

*Guess. Thank you, Professor Feynman.
** Your guess here.

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