Structural limitations in deriving accurate U-series ages from calcitic cold-water corals contrasts with robust coral radiocarbon and Mg/Ca systematics

M. Gutjahr, D. Vance, D. L. Hoffmann, C-D Hillenbrand, G. L. Foster, James William Buchanan Rae, G. Kuhn

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9 Citations (Scopus)


Radiocarbon and uranium-thorium dating results are presented from a genus of calcitic Antarctic cold-water octocorals (family Coralliidae), which were collected from the Marie Byrd Seamounts in the Amundsen Sea (Pacific sector of the Southern Ocean) and which to date have not been investigated geochemically. The geochronological results are set in context with solution and laser ablation-based element/Ca ratios (Li, B, Mg, Mn, Sr, Ba, U, Th).

Octocoral radiocarbon ages on living corals are in excellent agreement with modern ambient deep-water Δ14C, while multiple samples of individual fossil coral specimens yielded reproducible radiocarbon ages. Provided that local radiocarbon reservoir ages can be derived for a given time, fossil Amundsen Sea octocorals should be reliably dateable by means of radiocarbon.

In contrast to the encouraging radiocarbon findings, the uranium-series data are more difficult to interpret. The uranium concentration of these calcitic octocorals is an order of magnitude lower than in the aragonitic hexacorals that are conventionally used for geochronological investigations. While modern and Late Holocene octocorals yield initial δ234U in good agreement with modern seawater, our results reveal preferential inward diffusion of dissolved alpha-recoiled 234U and its impact on fossil coral δ234U. Besides alpha-recoil related 234U diffusion, high-resolution sampling of two fossil octocorals further demonstrates that diagenetic uranium mobility has offset apparent coral U-series ages. Combined with the preferential alpha-recoil 234U diffusion, this process has prevented fossil octocorals from preserving a closed system U-series calendar age for longer than a few thousand years. Moreover, several corals investigated contain significant initial thorium, which cannot be adequately corrected for because of an apparently variable initial 232Th/230Th. Our results demonstrate that calcitic cold-water corals are unsuitable for reliable U-series dating.

Mg/Ca ratios within single octocoral specimens are internally strikingly homogenous, and appear promising in terms of their response to ambient temperature. Magnesium/lithium ratios are significantly higher than usually observed in other deep marine calcifiers and for many of our studied corals are remarkably close to seawater compositions.

Although this family of octocorals is unsuitable for glacial deep-water Δ14C reconstructions, our findings highlight some important differences between hexacoral (aragonitic) and octocoral (calcitic) biomineralisation. Calcitic octocorals could still be useful for trace element and some isotopic studies, such as reconstruction of ambient deep water neodymium isotope composition or pH, via boron isotopic measurements.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)69-87
JournalChemical Geology
Early online date12 Jul 2013
Publication statusPublished - 2013


  • radiocarbon
  • U-series dating
  • cold-water corals
  • Soputhern Ocean
  • radiocarbon ventilation age
  • octocoral
  • Mg/Ca
  • Mg/Li
  • vital effect
  • high Mg calcite
  • uranium diffusion


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