Affordable Access

Stable isotopes (δ13C and δ15N) of organic matrix from coral skeleton

National Academy of Sciences
Publication Date
  • Biological Sciences
  • Biology


The evolutionary success of reef-building corals in nutrient-poor tropical waters is attributed to endosymbiotic dinoflagellates. The algae release photosynthetic products to the coral animal cells, augment nutrient flux, and enhance the rate of coral calcification. Natural abundance of stable isotopes (δ13C and δ18O) provides answers to modern and paleobiological questions about the effect of photosymbiosis on sources of carbon and oxygen in coral skeletal calcium carbonate. Here we compare 17 species of symbiotic and nonsymbiotic corals to determine whether evidence for photosymbiosis appears in stable isotopes (δ13C and δ15N) of an organic skeletal compartment, the coral skeletal organic matrix (OM). Mean OM δ13C in symbiotic and nonsymbiotic corals was similar (-26.08‰ vs. -24.31‰), but mean OM δ15N was significantly depleted in 15N in the former (4.09‰) relative to the latter (12.28‰), indicating an effect of the algae on OM synthesis and revealing OM δ15N as a proxy for photosymbiosis. To answer an important paleobiological question about the origin of photosymbiosis in reef-building corals, we applied this proxy test to a fossil coral (Pachythecalis major) from the Triassic (240 million years ago) in which OM is preserved. Mean OM δ15N was 4.66‰, suggesting that P. major was photosymbiotic. The results show that symbiotic algae augment coral calcification by contributing to the synthesis of skeletal OM and that they may have done so as early as the Triassic.

There are no comments yet on this publication. Be the first to share your thoughts.