Coastal signals of environmental changes: foraminifera as benthic monitors

Inda Brinkmann

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis (compilation)

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Climate changes, tightly linked to anthropogenic activities, are significantly altering environments and ecosystems globally, such as by increasing marine and coastal deoxygenation or occurrences of extreme weather events. The significance of paleoenvironmental and -climate reconstructions, as well as monitoring of current conditions, for unravelling baseline natural variation, today’s changes and potential future impacts, has been recognised by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. However, to access past records of physical and chemical environmental variables, and comprehensively assess ecosystem reactions, reliable and sensitive proxies are critical.

This thesis’ focus lies on benthic foraminifera—unicellular protists with mineralised or organic test, abundantly inhabiting ocean and coastal sediments—and their calibration as indicator for a variety of environmental conditions in field-sampling approaches. The research projects follow two general strategic tracks: (I) a biogeochemical assessment of trace-elemental ratios in foraminiferal calcium-carbonate tests using high-resolution, micro-analytical techniques; (II) a molecular approach investigating foraminiferal environmental DNA derived from coastal sediments.

Papers I and II concern the calibration of the benthic foraminiferal Mn/Ca proxy for marine oxygenation conditions in modern field studies. Trace-element concentrations and distributions were measured by plasma-, laser- and synchrotron-based analyses in a high-resolution, individual-foraminifera approach, and interpreted in the context of ambient physical and chemical conditions of the water column, pore-waters and sediments (including oxygen and manganese concentrations). Investigating two coastal systems with almost permanently severely oxygen-deficient bottom-waters (Santa Barbara Basin, Paper I), and undergoing a seasonal oxygenation cycle across the low- to well-oxygenated range (Gullmar Fjord, Paper II), respectively, demonstrated the utility of the Mn/Ca proxy for indicating low-oxygen conditions specifically. Continued calibration efforts under consideration of ambient oxygenation and redox regimes may open further possibilities of quantitative oxygen reconstructions. Paper III explores the use of coastal, benthic Ba/Ca records as indicator of riverine runoff and drought on land across the years 2018 and 2019, characterised by severe heat and drought, and warm and wet conditions, respectively. Benthic Ba/Ca correlated significantly with the hydroclimate conditions, as inferred from extensive meteorological and hydrological data sets of the region, highlighting qualitative proxy potential for paleo-drought reconstructions. Based on ambient sediment and pore-water geochemistry, we discuss mediation of water-column transport and pore-water Ba cycling by Fe and Mn oxides. All three investigations of these geochemical proxies (Paper I–III) highlighted the significance of biological controls on foraminiferal TE/Ca, which are species-specific and, thus, should be a deciding factor in choosing proxy candidate species. In particular the influences of micro-habitat distribution and utilised metabolic pathways by foraminifera are discussed in detail.

In Paper IV foraminiferal biodiversity and assemblage responses to natural and anthropogenic environmental trends in a fjord system (Swedish west coast) are documented in a metabarcoding approach. Environmental DNA successfully tracked biodiversity and community composition changes associated with contrasting ecosystems but showed damped sensitivity to environmental variability on sub-annual time-scales. Overlaps and discrepancies between molecular and traditional, observation-based assessment techniques, as well as future trajectories to resolve uncertainties are discussed.

Overall, this thesis solidifies and expands the currently available proxy toolbox for reconstructions of both coastal low-oxygen, as well as terrestrial hydroclimate conditions. The findings contribute towards filling current knowledge gaps pertaining to biotic impacts on foraminifera-derived biogeochemical signals and methodological uncertainties in metabarcoding approaches and highlight the significance of implementing molecular techniques in conventional foraminiferal assemblage studies.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Quaternary Sciences
  • Filipsson, Helena, Supervisor
  • Bernhard, Joan M. , Assistant supervisor, External person
  • Barras, Christine, Assistant supervisor, External person
  • Schweizer, Magali, Assistant supervisor, External person
Award date2022 Oct 21
Place of PublicationLund
ISBN (Print)978-91-87847-66-0
ISBN (electronic) 978-91-87847-67-7
Publication statusPublished - 2022 Sept 27

Bibliographical note

Defence details
Date: 2022-10-21
Time: 09:15
Place: Pangea, Department of Geology, Sölvegatan 12, Lund. Join via Zoom: password: 365795
External reviewer:
Name: Kucera, Michal
Title: Professor
Affiliation: MARUM, University of Bremen, Germany

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Geology

Free keywords

  • benthic foraminifera
  • proxy calibration
  • trace element geochemistry
  • environmental DNA
  • deoxygenation
  • drought
  • coastal environments


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