The nitrogen isotopic composition of diatom resting spores in Southern Ocean sediments: A source of bias and/or paleoenvironmental information?
Nitrogen isotopes in resting spores
The chemical composition of diatom fossils in the Southern Ocean provides information about the environmental history of Antarctica, including sea ice extent, biological production, and ocean nutrient distribution. The sea ice zone is an important habitat for a group of diatoms, largely from the genus Chaetoceros, that have a unique life cycle stage under environmental stress, when they produce a structure called a resting spore. Resting spores are meant to reseed the surface ocean when conditions are more favorable. The production of these heavy resting spores tends to remove significant amounts of carbon and silicon, essential nutrients, out of the surface ocean. As a result, this group has the potential to remove carbon from the surface ocean and can impact the sedimentary record scientists use to reconstruct environmental change. This project explores the role of resting spores and nutrients in the sedimentary record using the nitrogen isotopic signature of these fossils and how those measurements are used to estimate carbon cycle changes. Measurements of nitrogen stable isotopes of nitrate, biomass, and diatom-bound nitrogen and silicon-to-nitrogen ratios of individual species grown in the laboratory are used to quantify how resting spores record nutrient drawdown in the water column and to what degree their signature is biased toward low nutrient conditions. Laboratory incubations were conducted with surface sediment containing Chaetoceros spp.. The emergence of vegetative cells and subsequent formation of resting spores is manipulated with the addition of nutrients, primarily nitrate. The resulting samples, both of vegetative cells and resting spores were measured for diatom-bound d15N. Resting spore d15N values are consistently lower than the vegetative d15N from the same incubations. The incubation results will be used to quantify nutrient drawdown in sea ice environments during two contrasting intervals in earth history, the last ice age and the warm Pliocene. The project provided training and research opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students. Research efforts in Antarctic earth sciences are disseminated through an interactive display at the home institution and during university sponsored events. This work addresses uncertainties in how Chaetoceros resting spores record surface nutrient conditions in their nitrogen stable isotopic composition, the relative impact of their specific signal with respect to the full sedimentary assemblage, and their potential to bias or enhance environmental reconstructions in the sea ice zone.
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