The isotopic composition of respired carbon dioxide in scleractinian corals: Implications for cycling of organic carbon in corals

Peter K. Swart, Alina Szmant, James W. Porter, Richard E. Dodge, Jennifer I. Tougas, John R. Southam

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32 Scopus citations


The origin of δ13C variations within the skeletons of zooxanthellate scleractinian corals is still a matter of considerable debate. In particular, the role respired CO2 plays in controlling the eventual δ13C of the skeleton remains unclear. In this study, the temporal variability of the δ13C of respired CO2 produced by Montastraea faveolata has been measured at approximately monthly intervals over a 1-year period. In these experiments, three corals maintained on a platform at 8 m depth near Molasses Reef in the Florida Keys were incubated in closed chambers for 24-h periods and samples of the incubation water analyzed for the δ13C of the dissolved inorganic carbon (ΣCO2) at ∼3-h intervals. Throughout the incubation, the concentration of O2 was measured continuously within the chamber. Our results show that during daylight, the δ13C of the ΣCO2 in the incubation water becomes enriched in 13C as a result of fractionation during the fixation of C by photosynthesis, whereas at night the δ13C of the ΣCO2 becomes more negative. The δ13 of the respiratory CO2 ranges from -9‰ in the late spring to values as low as -17‰ in the autumn. The lighter values are significantly more negative than those reported by previous workers for coral tissue and zooxanthellae. An explanation for this discrepancy may be that the corals respire a significant proportion of isotopically negative substances, such as lipids, which are known to have values up to 10‰ lighter compared to the bulk δ13C of the tissue. The clear seasonal cycle in the δ13C of the respiratory CO2 suggests that there is also seasonal variability in either the δ13C of the coral tissue or the type and/or amount of organic material being respired. A similar temporal pattern and magnitude of change was observed in the δ13C of the coral tissue samples collected from a nearby reef at monthly intervals between 1995 and 1997. These patterns are similar in timing to the δ13C measured in the coral skeletons. We have also calculated an annual mean value for the fractionation factor between dissolved CO2- in the external environment and photosynthate fixed by the zooxanthellae of 1.0121 (±0.003). This value is inversely correlated with the ratio of photosynthesis to respiration (P/R) of the entire organism and shows the highest values during the summer months.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1495-1509
Number of pages15
JournalGeochimica et Cosmochimica Acta
Issue number6
StatePublished - Mar 15 2005

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geochemistry and Petrology


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