Abstract

The mineralogies of most biotic and abiotic carbonates have alternated in synchroneity between the calcite (hexagonal) and aragonite (orthorhombic) polymorphs of CaCO3 throughout the Phanerozoic Eon. These intervals of calcite and aragonite production, or calcite seas and aragonite seas, are thought to be caused primarily by secular variation in the molar magnesium/calcium ratio of seawater (mMg/Ca > 2 = aragonite + high-Mg calcite; mMg/Ca < 2 = low-Mg calcite), a ratio that has oscillated between 1.0 and 5.2 throughout the Phanerozoic. In laboratory experiments, we show that three species of scleractinian corals, which produce aragonite in modern seawater and which have flourished as important reef builders primarily during aragonite seas of the past, began producing calcite in artificial seawater with an ambient mMg/Ca ratio below that of modern seawater (5.2). The corals produced progressively higher percentages of calcite and calcified at lower rates with further reduction of the ambient mMg/Ca ratio. In artificial seawater of imputed Late Cretaceous composition (mMg/Ca = 1.0), which favors the precipitation of the calcite polymorph, scleractinian corals produced skeletons containing >30% low-Mg calcite (skeletal mMg/Ca < 0.04). These results indicate that the skeletal mineral used by scleractinian corals is partially determined by seawater chemistry. Furthermore, slow calcification rates, resulting from the production of largely aragonitic skeletons in chemically unfavorable seawater (mMg/Ca < 2), probably contributed to the scleractinians' diminished reef-building role in the calcite seas of Late Cretaceous and early Cenozoic time.

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