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Phytoplankton bounce back from abrupt climate change

The majority of tiny marine plants weathered the abrupt climate changes that occurred in Earth's past and bounced back, according to a Penn State geoscientist.

"Populations of plankton are pretty resilient," says Dr. Timothy J. Bralower, head and professor of geoscience.

Bralower looked at cores of marine sediments related to thousands of years of deposition, to locate populations of these plankton during three periods of abrupt climate change. These abrupt changes were caused either by Oceanic Anoxic Events during the middle Jurassic to late Cretaceous when the oceans became uniformly depleted of oxygen or by a warming event in the early Paleocene around 55 million years ago.

Marine sediment cores contain calcareous plankton single-celled organisms with a coating or shell of calcium carbonate as fossils. These tiny photosynthesizing plants float in the ocean and move with the currents. They are around 10 micrometers in size, about half the width of a human hair. Anything bigger than phytoplankton eat them. Eventually, their calcium carbonate shell falls to the ocean floor to become part of the sediment.

The factors that were altered in the upper marine environment during the abrupt climate change events included increases in temperature and changes in thermal structure, changes in salinity and alkalinity, and changes in nutrient patterns and trace elements.

"In every case, changes in surface habitats resulted in transient plankton communities," Bralower told attendees at the 2006 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "Although we have a poor understanding of ancient plankton ecology, it appears that extinctions were selective and targeted more specialized and often deeper-dwelling species."

For example, about 55 million years ago there was a warming event that geologists call the Paleocene/Eocene thermal maximum. During that time, there were mass extinctions of organisms li
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Contact: A'ndrea Elyse Messer
aem1@psu.edu
814-865-9481
Penn State
16-Feb-2006


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