In evolution, fossils reveal, 'Court Jester' gets last laugh

Jan 10, 2013 by Chris Barncard
Less than a millimeter across, the shells of tiny organisms called planktonic foraminifera — like these from an offshore drilling site in the Atlantic Ocean — make up much of the sediment on the ocean floor. A study by UW–Madison researchers of similar sediment shows environmental changes at work in extinction of foraminifera species, but biological factors sparking the rise of new species. Credit: Andy Fraass, University of Massachusetts-Amherst

(—The dominant factors in the rise and fall of the diversity of life on Earth has been a point of debate for scientists nearly as long as they have studied the processes of evolution.

In the 1970s, Leigh Van Valen began calling the case for (such as competition with other organisms for food, space and mates) the "Red Queen" hypothesis, after Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking-Glass" character who tells Alice she must run hard in Wonderland just to stay in the same place.

The alternative argument, backing the nonbiological forces of the environment (physical characteristics like chemistry and temperature or relative catastrophes like asteroid impacts), came to be known as the "Court Jester" hypothesis.

"This question—which one is pulling the strings?—is a big one for people who study the history of ," says Shanan Peters, a University of Wisconsin–Madison geoscience professor. "And what we've found is that it's actually both. They just play very different roles."

Peters and Clay Kelly, a fellow UW–Madison geoscience professor, chose to pit the Red Queen and Court Jester against each other on the high seas, over planktonic foraminifera: tiny, shelled, ocean-dwelling creatures with an outsized impact on the planet and science. Their results were published online today (Jan. 9, 2013) by the journal Nature.

Foraminifera live and die around the globe in almost every part of our oceans, eating just a step up from the bottom of the food chain and providing an enormous amount of biomass for individuals that are usually less than a millimeter long.

Immense blooms of that include planktonic foraminifera can be large enough to be visible from space, which makes for a great many shelled corpses sinking to the when those populations wane.

"In a small sample of sediment from the ocean floor you can have thousands of these shells from all sorts of foraminifera species going back 150 million years," Kelly says. Using records compiled over decades by scientists studying foraminifera, Kelly and graduate student Andrew Fraass tracked the expansion and contraction of the organisms' diversity—the number of known species—across millions of years.

"There are so many foraminifera, so widely distributed around the oceans, that their shells really are the ocean sediment," Kelly says. "And we know enough about when certain species were alive that these fossil shells are actually used by geologists researching ocean and climate change and working in the energy sector to tell them how old sediment samples are."

But those shells don't always reach bottom in a shifting ocean.

Variations in temperature, pressure and chemical composition of seawater form a boundary in the water called the carbonate compensation depth, or CCD. Beneath the CCD, calcium carbonate dissolves, and shells like those of foraminifera never fall into the sediment.

"The position of the CCD is extremely dynamic, moving up and down in the water column in the deep sea with changes in global chemistry—especially related to atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, but to other things, too," says Peters. "As physical changes to the Earth's environmental systems alter physical aspects of the ocean like the CCD, we see it reflected in the pattern of sedimentation."

Kelly and Peters spent years poring over reports from international deep-sea sediment drilling expeditions, selecting more than 70 sites in the Atlantic Ocean basin where sediment cores reached down to the basalt layer that marks the volcanic creation of the sea floor. They noted the ages of continuous stretches of sediment deposits, with special attention to the gaps.

"Those points where time elapsed without significant accumulation of sediment, those correspond very strongly to periods Clay and Andy found when foraminifera diversity was declining," Peters says. "That tells us in a pretty convincing way that those extinctions are correlated to physical changes in the environment the foraminifera were adapted to."

On the other hand, times when new foraminifera species were appearing in the oceans bear little or no connection to periods of physical change in the ocean environment.

"That suggests to us that it's the Red Queen, a more biologically driven phenomenon, tied to species origination," Kelly says. "It may be that these biological differences allow more competitive new species to flourish."

When successful foraminifera species spread out, it takes a dramatic force to unseat them.

"These plankton species have broad geographic distributions," Kelly says. "To extirpate a plankton species, you have to knock off every population around the world. Whatever crisis or change happens to bring that about has to be equally broad in geographic extent."

"Big, global, physical changes like that leave very strong, visible signals in our data," Peters says. "The macrostratigraphy, the way we've overlaid these different data sources, shows a really strong reaction to the meteorite impact that caused a huge extinction about 65 million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous period."

The researcher's data comes unhinged at only one point. The diversity of foraminifera species and state of the sediment record uncouple at the transition from Eocene epoch to Oligocene epoch. That change, about 34 million years ago, shifted the globe from a greenhouse state in which alligators roamed the Arctic to an icehouse state in which—for the first time—the Antarctic ice sheet formed, and advancing and retreating continental glaciers became the norm.

"That suggests to us the possibility that major climate tipping points affect the biosphere in a way that is really different from normal, gradual warming and cooling that we see within any of those intervals," Peters says.

It's no stretch, according to Peters and Kelly, whose work is funded by the National Science Foundation, to extend that idea to the rate of change the planet is experiencing today with modern climate change.

"If we are in fact shifting the balance of the climate into a new state, we could potentially see a transition interval like we see documented here," Peters says, "where the biosphere not only responds, but it responds to environmental changes in a different way than it has for a very long period of time."

And the foraminifera themselves, which sequester atmospheric carbon when their shells are buried in ocean sediment, could contribute to the feedback of an ever more aggressive and unpredictable Court Jester.

"That's an important topic for more study," Peters said. "Given the key role of the foraminifera in the Earth system, a system thrown out of whack could be further perturbed by the response of the planktonic foraminifera themselves."

Explore further: Antarctic ice shelves rapidly thinning

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Seafloor Fossils Provide Clues on Climate Change

Oct 22, 2009

Deep under the sea, a fossil the size of a sand grain is nestled among a billion of its closest dead relatives. Known as foraminifera, these complex little shells of calcium carbonate can tell you the sea ...

Surviving mass extinction by leading a double life

Jul 14, 2009

( -- Drifting across the world's oceans are a group of unicellular marine microorganisms that are not only a crucial source of food for other marine life -- but their fossils, which are found in abundance, provide ...

Deep ocean sediment gives ancient temperature record

Oct 11, 2012

Scientists have created a more accurate history of how Earth's climate has varied over the last 1.5 million years, after developing a new method that lets them draw on natural temperature records that have ...

Recommended for you

Antarctic ice shelves rapidly thinning

11 hours ago

A new study led by Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego researchers has revealed that the thickness of Antarctica's floating ice shelves has recently decreased by as much as 18 percent in certain ...

More big storms increase tropical rainfall totals

Mar 25, 2015

Increasing rainfall in certain parts of the tropics, colloquially described as the wet get wetter and warm get wetter, has long been a projection of climate change. Now observations have shown that an increase ...

Preparing Boston for the "big one"

Mar 25, 2015

In 1755, a major earthquake shook the Boston area, toppling chimneys and inspiring sermons and poems about the wrath of God, such as "Earthquakes the Works of God and Tokens of his Just Displeasure" and "The ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jan 11, 2013
Yes- it would be difficult to quantify, but these foraminifera are responsible for a very large portion of the worldocean's capacity as a carbon sink, in terms of the amount of CO2 that is incorporated into their carbonate-mineral forams, and then annually rained down to the ocean floor at the end of their lifecycles.

If increased temperature/acidity prevents the mineralization necessary to grow these forams -or possibly even begins to dissolve those already deposited on the ocean floor, then that could quickly put an end to the worldocean's carbon-sink capacity, at least partially, if not completely.

That would be a big problem.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.