Drivers of extinction in the marine phytoplankton

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: Sch of Geography, Earth & Env Sciences


Marine phytoplankton form the basis of pelagic food webs and ecosystems. With modern anthropogenic environmental impacts - including eutrophication, climate change and ocean acidification - there is evidence that this group is already experiencing biogeographic range shifts and changes to community structure. The longer-term risk of species extinction within this group is, however, more poorly understood. Here, we seek to investigate the dynamics, causes and community restructuring during a major extinction of a closely-related group oceanic surface-dwelling alage, approximately 2 million years ago.

The alage concerned produce calcium carbonate (calcite) plate-like scales, which are produced by and surround the cell during life, but on death accumulate in great numbers in deep ocean sediments. These fossil scales, called coccoliths, can be used to reconstruct the abundance and diversity of species that were living in the surface ocean across millions of years. The chemistry of coccoliths can also be used as an indicator of cell processes and the conditions in the surface ocean environment at the time the coccoliths were formed. Togther, we propose to use the variations in abundances and diversity of species, as well as chemical indicators of cell growth rates and environment, to determine the main drivers of species extinction in this case. In particular, was this mainly driven by biotic competition with other algal species and groups, or was it due to changing surface ocean environments, which drove the loss of the particular niche occupied by the extinct species. Understanding this process, will help constrain the dynamics of extinction in the plankton, and the mechanisms by which environmental stress is transferred into extinction risk.

Planned Impact

This project is directly related to the CENTA NERC DTP PhD project, awarded to Amy Jones, focusing on the patterns of evolution and extinction within late Neogene coccolithophore communities. This project includes supervision from external partners Network Stratigraphic UK, a significant provider of biostratigraphic consultancy services within the UK and globally. Amy's project will include placement time at Network Stratigraphic, where she will be able to gain the view of highly experienced industrial biostratigraphers on the taxonomic differentiation and key biostratigraphic events through this interval. Although industry has a key focus on stratigraphy, this is fundamentally based on robust bioevents, which can be correlated across basins and be picked reliable on the basis of sound taxonomic differentiation. In this project, we seek to make use of this expertise in setting key target bioevents. We will then use the high precision age models that are only possible from IODP quality ocean sediment cores to test the patterns and processes driving these events. This understanding will, in turn, feedback into industrial applications, with the improved independent testing of assumptions about the synchrony of biostratigraphic events and additional details of nannofossil assemblage change, constrained by orbital age models, that could be used in applied stratigraphy.

The science around IODP scientific ocean drilling is an ideal framework for engaging the wider public in the topics of Earth System Science and environmental change. The science objectives of IODP Expedition 363 address a range of key questions about current global change - monsoonal climate systems, long-term El Niño dynamics, tropical atmospheric circulation and precipitation regimes, and the dynamics of the Earth's cryosphere. Together with the specific focus of this project on extinction mechanisms in the oceanic ecosystem, this provides a range oftopics of societal relevance on which to engage the public. All of these are set against the background of large-scale international scientific collaboration and major engineering and technological challenges all set within the context of the oceanic environment. This strong aesthetic appeal gives scientists leverage for communicating their work to the public, including young people, educators and policy makers. We will make use of this outreach opportunity within the context of the Heritage Lottery funded refurbishment of the Lapworth Museum of Geology. We will use this space to host outreach events focused on long-term climate change. This will link directly to the new climate section of the Active Earth galleries of the Museum. In progress already are video link-ups from Expedition 363 with a number of primary, middle and secondary schools, as well as University of the Third Age study groups hosted at the Lapworth Museum.

This moratorium proposal will fund a technician post, likely to be taken-up by a recent graduate of the MSc in Applied and Petroleum Micropalaeontology at Birmingham. This research experience, including laboratory preparation and analytical techniques, will provide them with positive experience for future work in either research or industrial micropalaeontology, with a potentially lasting impact on their education and career.


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Title Mysteries of the Deep 
Description Mysteries of the Deep comic / graphic novel explaining palaeoclimate science. Co-authors Tom Dunkley Jones and Edward Ross 
Type Of Art Creative Writing 
Year Produced 2019 
Impact Just released - awaiting data on use and impact 
Description Through this award we have generated a detailed new record of the chemistry of fossil marine phytoplankton through a major extinction event, which occurred ~2 million years ago. This data shows that there was a perturbation to ocean circulation and nutrient fluxes associated with this event, and are the likely causes of this plankton extinction. We are currently working to write-up the results of this work and submit for publication.
Exploitation Route One of the key achievement of this grant was developing a new method for the rapid size-separation of micron-sized coccolith particles. Once published, we believe this will be widely adopted as a means of generating higher-resolution records of past coccolith chemistry changes.
Sectors Environment

Description Marie Curie Individual Fellowship
Amount € 183,454 (EUR)
Funding ID 799531 
Organisation European Union 
Sector Public
Country European Union (EU)
Start 06/2019 
End 05/2021
Description Research partnership with Prof. Yige Zhang 
Organisation Texas A&M University-Central Texas
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Working on coccolith geochemistry for the purposes of refining ancient pCO2 estimates
Collaborator Contribution Working on organic biomarkers for the purposes of refining ancient pCO2 estimates
Impact Prof. Zhang is a research collaborator in successful Marie Curie IF to further pursue this work.
Start Year 2017
Description Lapworth Museum of Geology Temporary Exhibition 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Ongoing temporary 4 month exhibition about ocean drilling and palaeoclimate research based at the Lapworth Museum of Geology (~60,000 visitors / year). Associated with outreach events (family fun day and evening events and lectures) as well as outreach website and free comic:
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019