- © The Mineralogical Society Of America
Corals open an exceptional window into many phenomena of geological, geochemical, climatic, and paleontological interest. From the Paleozoic to the present, corals provide some of the finest high-resolution archives of marine conditions. Corals are likewise exceptional for chronometric purposes, and even the terrestrial 14C timescale has now been calibrated against coral 230Th/234U. Corals also represent a testing ground for basic ideas about mineralogy and geochemistry. The shapes, sizes, and organization of skeletal crystals have been attributed to factors as diverse as mineral supersaturation levels and organic mediation of crystal growth. The coupling between calcification and photosynthesis in symbiotic corals is likewise attributed to everything from photosynthetic alkalinization of the water, to efforts by the coral to prevent photosynthetic alkalinization. Corals also leave a significant geochemical imprint on the oceans. Their aragonite skeletons accept about 10 times more strontium than does calcite, hence the proportion of marine aragonite precipitation affects the oceanic chemical balance. Biological carbonates represent the biosphere’s largest carbon reservoir, hence calcareous organisms affect the ocean’s pH, CO2 content, and ultimately global temperatures through the greenhouse gas connection. Finally, corals present some geochemical puzzles for ecology and conservation. How do symbiotic corals obtain nutrients in some of the most nutrient deficient parts of the planet? Are global geochemical changes partially responsible for the widespread declines in coral reefs during recent decades? We will address many of these issues, but will concentrate on coral skeletal structure and calcification mechanism. These topics bear most directly on the biomineralization process and generally affect the choice of skeletal materials and analytical techniques used in geochemical investigations.
The coral reef is probably the planet’s most spectacular biomineralization product. These grand and complex ecosystems build on the accumulated skeletal debris of countless generations of organisms, especially calcareous algae and symbiotic …