Reorganization of Southern Ocean Plankton Ecosystem at the Onset of Antarctic Glaciation

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Science  19 Apr 2013:
Vol. 340, Issue 6130, pp. 341-344
DOI: 10.1126/science.1223646

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Southern Change

Antarctica has been mostly covered by ice since the inception of large-scale continental glaciation during the Oligocene, which profoundly altered the isotopic and mineralogical records of the sediments surrounding the continent. Houben et al. (p. 341) found records of the corresponding living systems in the fossil marine dinoflagellate cysts, which revealed that a microplankton ecosystem, similar to the one that exists today, appeared simultaneously with the first major Antarctic glaciation approximately 34 million years ago.


The circum-Antarctic Southern Ocean is an important region for global marine food webs and carbon cycling because of sea-ice formation and its unique plankton ecosystem. However, the mechanisms underlying the installation of this distinct ecosystem and the geological timing of its development remain unknown. Here, we show, on the basis of fossil marine dinoflagellate cyst records, that a major restructuring of the Southern Ocean plankton ecosystem occurred abruptly and concomitant with the first major Antarctic glaciation in the earliest Oligocene (~33.6 million years ago). This turnover marks a regime shift in zooplankton-phytoplankton interactions and community structure, which indicates the appearance of eutrophic and seasonally productive environments on the Antarctic margin. We conclude that earliest Oligocene cooling, ice-sheet expansion, and subsequent sea-ice formation were important drivers of biotic evolution in the Southern Ocean.

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