Discovery Of ‘Ghost’ Fossils Reveals Plankton Resilience to Past Global Warming Events

An international team of scientists have discovered a new type of fossilisation

Peer-Reviewed Publication

UNIVERSITY COLLEGE LONDON

Microscopic plankton cell-wall coverings preserved as “ghost” fossil impressions, pressed into the surface of ancient organic matter (183 million years old).
IMAGE: THE IMAGES SHOW THE IMPRESSIONS OF A COLLAPSED CELL-WALL COVERING (A COCCOSPHERE) ON THE SURFACE OF A FRAGMENT OF ANCIENT ORGANIC MATTER (LEFT) WITH THE INDIVIDUAL PLATES (COCCOLITHS) ENLARGED TO SHOW THE EXQUISITE PRESERVATION OF SUB-MICRON-SCALE STRUCTURES (RIGHT). THE BLUE IMAGE IS INVERTED TO GIVE A VIRTUAL FOSSIL CAST, I.E., TO SHOW THE ORIGINAL THREE-DIMENSIONAL FORM. THE ORIGINAL PLATES HAVE BEEN REMOVED FROM THE SEDIMENT BY DISSOLUTION, LEAVING BEHIND ONLY THE GHOST IMPRINTS. view more 
CREDIT: S.M. SLATER, P. BOWN / SCIENCE JOURNAL

An international team of scientists from UCL (University College London), the Swedish Museum of Natural History, Natural History Museum (London) and the University of Florence have found a remarkable type of fossilisation that has remained almost entirely overlooked until now.

The fossils are microscopic imprints, or “ghosts”, of single-celled plankton, called coccolithophores, that lived in the seas millions of years ago, and their discovery is changing our understanding of how plankton in the oceans are affected by climate change.

Coccolithophores are important in today’s oceans, providing much of the oxygen we breathe, supporting marine food webs, and locking carbon away in seafloor sediments. They are a type of microscopic plankton that surround their cells with hard calcareous plates, called coccoliths, and these are what normally fossilize in rocks.

Declines in the abundance of these fossils have been documented from multiple past global warming events, suggesting that these plankton were severely affected by climate change and ocean acidification. However, a study published today in the journal Science presents new global records of abundant ghost fossils from three Jurassic and Cretaceous warming events (94, 120 and 183 million years ago), suggesting that coccolithophores were more resilient to past climate change than was previously thought.

“The discovery of these beautiful ghost fossils was completely unexpected”, says Dr. Sam Slater from the Swedish Museum of Natural History. “We initially found them preserved on the surfaces of fossilized pollen, and it quickly became apparent that they were abundant during intervals where normal coccolithophore fossils were rare or absent – this was a total surprise!”

Despite their microscopic size, coccolithophores can be hugely abundant in the present ocean, being visible from space as cloud-like blooms. After death, their calcareous exoskeletons sink to the seafloor, accumulating in vast numbers, forming rocks such as chalk.

“The preservation of these ghost nannofossils is truly remarkable,” says Professor Paul Bown (UCL). “The ghost fossils are extremely small ‒ their length is approximately five thousandths of a millimetre, 15 times narrower than the width of a human hair! ‒ but the detail of the original plates is still perfectly visible, pressed into the surfaces of ancient organic matter, even though the plates themselves have dissolved away”.

The ghost fossils formed while the sediments at the seafloor were being buried and turned into rock. As more mud was gradually deposited on top, the resulting pressure squashed the coccolith plates and other organic remains together, and the hard coccoliths were pressed into the surfaces of pollen, spores and other soft organic matter. Later, acidic waters within spaces in the rock dissolved away the coccoliths, leaving behind just their impressions – the ghosts.

“Normally, palaeontologists only search for the fossil coccoliths themselves, and if they don’t find any then they often assume that these ancient plankton communities collapsed,” explains Professor Vivi Vajda (Swedish Museum of Natural History). “These ghost fossils show us that sometimes the fossil record plays tricks on us and there are other ways that these calcareous nannoplankton may be preserved, which need to be taken into account when trying to understand responses to past climate change”.

Professor Silvia Danise (University of Florence) says: “Ghost nannofossils are likely common in the fossil record, but they have been overlooked due to their tiny size and cryptic mode of preservation. We think that this peculiar type of fossilization will be useful in the future, particularly when studying geological intervals where the original coccoliths are missing from the fossil record”.

The study focused on the Toarcian Oceanic Anoxic Event (T-OAE), an interval of rapid global warming in the Early Jurassic (183 million years ago), caused by an increase in CO2-levels in the atmosphere from massive volcanism in the Southern Hemisphere. The researchers found ghost nannofossils associated with the T-OAE from the UK, Germany, Japan and New Zealand, but also from two similar global warming events in the Cretaceous: Oceanic Anoxic Event 1a (120 million years ago) from Sweden, and Oceanic Anoxic Event 2 (94 million years ago) from Italy.

“The ghost fossils show that nannoplankton were abundant, diverse and thriving during past warming events in the Jurassic and Cretaceous, where previous records have assumed that plankton collapsed due to ocean acidification,” explains Professor Richard Twitchett (Natural History Museum, London). “These fossils are rewriting our understanding of how the calcareous nannoplankton respond to warming events.”

Finally, Dr. Sam Slater explains: “Our study shows that algal plankton were abundant during these past warming events and contributed to the expansion of marine dead zones, where seafloor oxygen-levels were too low for most species to survive. These conditions, with plankton blooms and dead zones, may become more widespread across our globally warming oceans.”


JOURNAL

Science

DOI

10.1126/science.abm7330 

METHOD OF RESEARCH

Content analysis

SUBJECT OF RESEARCH

Not applicable

ARTICLE TITLE

Global record of “ghost” nannofossils reveals plankton resilience to high CO2 and warming

ARTICLE PUBLICATION DATE

20-May-2022

From EurekAlert!

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Tom Foley
May 20, 2022 2:54 am

So the coccoliths were still around in warmer periods, just enough to leave ghost fossils, but not in the vast numbers needed to form the sedimentary chalk rocks? Sounds like population cycles caused by … ?

May 20, 2022 3:01 am

 “Our study shows that algal plankton were abundant during these past warming events and contributed to the expansion of marine dead zones, where seafloor oxygen-levels were too low for most species to survive. These conditions, with plankton blooms and dead zones, may become more widespread across our globally warming oceans.”

 What it shows is that algal plankton were abundant during these (some) past warming events. The rest is assumption without more evidence than he has given here.

Captain Climate
Reply to  Dudley Horscroft
May 20, 2022 7:50 pm

They have to keep the scare or no grant

Tom Abbott
May 20, 2022 3:29 am

From the article: “ocean acidification”

A non-issue used by alarmists to scare the ignorant.

From the article: “The study focused on the Toarcian Oceanic Anoxic Event (T-OAE), an interval of rapid global warming in the Early Jurassic (183 million years ago), caused by an increase in CO2-levels in the atmosphere from massive volcanism in the Southern Hemisphere.”

More alarmist unsubstantiated speculation.

If alarmists didn’t have unsubstantiated speculation, they would have nothing at all. Which is what they have: Nothing at all.

It’s all just Bull Science dressed up as Science.

fretslider
May 20, 2022 3:43 am

 “Our study shows that algal plankton were abundant during these past warming events and contributed to the expansion of marine dead zones”

So, they had no problem surviving ‘climate change’. But don’t party just yet.  

“These conditions, with plankton blooms and dead zones, may become more widespread across our globally warming oceans.”

Blooms, as I recall, generally occur where there is an abundance of nutrients available. Coastal waters, lakes, etc.

I just wish these scientists would drop the conjecture and speculation.

Duane
May 20, 2022 4:52 am

Two quotes from the article that are in diametric opposition:

Coccolithophores are important in today’s oceans, providing much of the oxygen we breathe, supporting marine food webs, and locking carbon away in seafloor sediments.

Finally, Dr. Sam Slater explains: “Our study shows that algal plankton were abundant during these past warming events and contributed to the expansion of marine dead zones, where seafloor oxygen-levels were too low for most species to survive. These conditions, with plankton blooms and dead zones, may become more widespread across our globally warming oceans.”

WTF?

Right-Handed Shark
Reply to  Duane
May 20, 2022 8:55 am

This is climate science. It doesn’t have to make sense.

Duane
May 20, 2022 4:54 am

How can we possibly believe this, or any other new scientific report? The warmunists keep telling us that “the science is settled”, so there can be no more science. Any more science is obviously Fake Science, promulgated by the whores working for the oil and gas industry.

Old Man Winter
Reply to  Duane
May 20, 2022 9:48 am

“The discovery of these beautiful ghost fossils was completely unexpected”

Greenie interpretation: Yup, just more proof that “the science is settled”! 😮

Last edited 1 month ago by Old Man Winter
jono1066
May 20, 2022 5:04 am

but “the science is settled”. . . is it not
1 fossil = 1 coccolithophore
1 ghost = 1 negative fossil (-1) = 1 negative coccolithophore
so to find out how many were around you simply add them all up . . . just like footprints in the sand
(1 footprint = 1 monopedal animal)
therefore 2 footprints is therefore 2 monopedal animals just different flavours
etc
adfinitum

william Johnston
Reply to  jono1066
May 20, 2022 12:42 pm

Ad nauseum?

Michael E McHenry
May 20, 2022 6:46 am

There was a paper in Science 18 April 2008 vol 320 by Rodriguez et al That found that increasing CO2 levels were beneficial to coccoliths growth

Old Man Winter
Reply to  Michael E McHenry
May 20, 2022 10:09 am

Climate change: coccolithophorids for CO2 sequestration
https://home.physics.wisc.edu/gilbert/coccolithophorid/

“Over the past 220 years there has been a 40% increase in average coccolith mass”

It also lists Rodriquez (2008) as a footnote.

Last edited 1 month ago by Old Man Winter
Mike McHenry
Reply to  Old Man Winter
May 20, 2022 12:38 pm

Thanks

John I Reistroffer
May 20, 2022 8:55 am

For scale Coccoliths are the what compose the great chalk formations in Mesozoic. The Austin Chalk Formation in Texas and Louisiana. The White Cliffs of Dover in Great Britain. The warm Mesozoic seas are where these critters thrived.

michael hart
May 20, 2022 11:43 am

Well duhhhh…..
The White Cliffs of Dover were laid down in high CO2 periods.

Captain Climate
May 20, 2022 7:48 pm

I think this is an amazing example of the consensus is never right. These people thought coccolithophores were scarce because they were looking for the wrong things. Their entire presumed knowledge was built on sand.

Julian Flood
May 21, 2022 12:21 am

A vast bloom will consume the near surface nutrients. Billions of coccoliths will diffuse the light. Will this allow the plankton to photosynthesise deeper? After all, they’re not fixing chalk for fun.

JF

John I Reistroffer
Reply to  Julian Flood
May 21, 2022 6:17 pm

Also through the process of photosynthesis, they remove the C02 from the water where they live. Their calcareous skeletons which are made up of CaCO3, buffer the PH of the water.

May 21, 2022 8:44 am

However, a study published today in the journal Science presents new global records of abundant ghost fossils from three Jurassic and Cretaceous warming events (94, 120 and 183 million years ago), suggesting that coccolithophores were more resilient to past climate change than was previously thought.

Looking at the bigger picture from the Cretaceous to the present, Fanny Monteiro’s excellent review of coccolithophores shows that they had their peak abundance and diversity (i.e. they liked it best) in the hot temperatures of the mid Cretaceous. They took a severe haircut at the meteor impact but survived, later showing a peak in status at the PETM (Palaeocene-Eocene thermal maximum) that’s supposed to be a surrogate of catastrophic warming. Coccolithophores steadily declined after the PETM in step with falling global temperatures and eventual glaciation. So for the cocco’s, hot is good and cold is bad (and meteors also suck).

Why marine phytoplankton calcify (science.org)

Coccolithophores: calcified plankton who like it hot and hate our ice age cold | Odyssey (wordpress.com)

Quite how a “warming is bad for coccolithophores” story can be spun from the opposite reality is an astonishing feat of political spin.

Monteiro coccolithophore abundance with deep time.PNG
Last edited 1 month ago by Phil Salmon
May 21, 2022 8:48 am

More from Fanny Monteiro’s nice review – interestingly all the morphological innovation of new forms of coccolithophores was in the hothouse Mesozoic. Since then in the cooling Cenozoic it’s just been same old-same old coccos.

Monteiro coccolithophore biomineralisation innovations history.PNG
May 21, 2022 9:01 am

It’s worth reminding ourselves that coccolithophores are beautiful creatures. Here’s some cocco selfies from Monteiro again,

coccolithophore SEM-images Monteiro.png
May 21, 2022 9:10 am

Anyone who’s travelled to the UK by sea will have seen coccolithophore palaontology staring you in the face each time you approach the white cliffs of Dover. These are quintillions of coccos laid down during the Cretaceous when global temperatures were 10 degrees C or more higher than now. Rather than enduring a climate catastrophe, the white cliffs are a signature of life at its most exuberant – loving it for millions of years on end.

White cliffs of Dover.jpg
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