Knox, R. W. O'B., Corfield, R. M. & Dunay, R. E.

Document Type


Publication Date


Journal or Book Title

Geological Society Special Publication




Geological Society London

Place of Publication

London, UK


In the late Paleocene to early Eocene, deep sea benthic foraminifera suffered their only
global extinction of the last 75 million years and diversity decreased worldwide by 30-50% in a few thousand years. At Maud Rise (Weddell Sea, Antarctica; Sites 689 and 690, palaeodepths 1100 m and 1900 m) and Walvis Ridge (Southeastern Atlantic, Sites 525 and 527, palaeodepths 1600 m and 3400 m) post-extinction faunas were low-diversity and high-dominance, but the dominant species differed by geographical location. At Maud Rise, post-extinction faunas were dominated by small, biserial and triserial species, while the large, thick-walled, long-lived deep sea species Nuttallides truempyi was absent. At Walvis Ridge, by contrast, they were dominated by long-lived species such as N. truempyi, with common to abundant small abyssaminid species.
The faunal dominance patterns at the two locations thus suggest different post-extinction seafloor environments: increased flux of organic matter and possibly decreased oxygen levels at Maud Rise, decreased flux at Walvis Ridge. The species-richness remained very low for about 50 000 years, then gradually increased.
The extinction was synchronous with a large, negative, short-term excursion of carbon and oxygen isotopes in planktonic and benthic foraminifera and bulk carbonate. The isotope excursions reached peak negative values in a few thousand years and values returned to preexcursion levels in about 50 000 years. The carbon isotope excursion was about -2%0 for benthic foraminifera at Walvis Ridge and Maud Rise, and about -4%0 for planktonic foraminifera at Maud Rise. At the latter sites vertical gradients thus decreased, possibly at least partially as a result of upwelling. The oxygen isotope excursion was about -1.5%o for benthic foraminifera at Walvis Ridge and Maud Rise, -1%o for planktonic foraminifera at Maud Rise. The rapid oxygen isotope excursion at a time when polar ice-sheets were absent or insignificant can be explained by an increase in temperature by 4-6~ of high latitude surface waters and deep waters world wide. The deep ocean temperature increase could have been caused by warming of surface waters at high latitudes and continued formation of the deep waters at these
locations, or by a switch from dominant formation of deep waters at high latitudes to formation at lower latitudes. Benthic foraminiferal post-extinction biogeographical patterns favour the latter explanation.
The short-term carbon isotope excursion occurred in deep and surface waters, and in soil concretions and mammal teeth in the continental record. It is associated with increased CaCO3- dissolution over a wide depth range in the oceans, suggesting that a rapid transfer of isotopically light carbon from lithosphere or biosphere into the ocean-atmosphere system may have been involved. The rapidity of the initiation of the excursion (a few thousand years) and its short duration (50 000 years) suggest that such a transfer was probably not caused by changes in the ratio of organic carbon to carbonate deposition or erosion. Transfer of carbon from the terrestrial biosphere was probably not the cause, because it would require a much larger biosphere destruction than at the end of the Cretaceous, in conflict with the fossil record. It is difficult to
explain the large shift by rapid emission into the atmosphere of volcanogenic CO2, although huge subaerial plateau basalt eruptions occurred at the time in the northern Atlantic. Probably a complex combination of processes and feedback was involved, including volcanogenic emission of CO2, changing circulation patterns, changing productivity in the oceans and possibly on land, and changes in the relative size of the oceanic and atmospheric carbon reservoirs.