Physicochemical Constraints on the Distribution of Benthic Foraminiferal Cell Morphology in the Modern Ocean

Caitlin Keating-Bitonti and Jonathan Payne, Stanford University, Department of Geological Sciences, Stanford, CA, United States
Patterns in the sizes and shapes of marine organisms often occur across latitude and water depth gradients as a function of metabolic constraints dictated by the physical environment. However, the environmental factors that maintain these gradients in morphology remain incompletely understood because several oceanographic variables of biological importance are intimately correlated, such as temperature, dissolved oxygen concentration, particulate organic carbon (POC) flux, and carbonate saturation. Benthic foraminifera, a diverse group of single-celled protists that occur in nearly all marine environments, provide an ideal opportunity to test statistically among the various hypothesized environmental controls on cell morphology. Here, we use over 7,000 occurrences of 541 species of recent benthic foraminifera that span more than 60 degrees of latitude and 1,600 meters of water depth around the North American continental margin to assess the relative contributions of temperature, oxygen availability, carbonate saturation, and POC flux on their size and volume-to-surface area ratio in the modern ocean. Seawater temperature and dissolved oxygen concentrations best predict both measures of benthic foraminiferal cell morphology from the North American continental margin. These same variables also explain morphological variations from the Pacific continental margin in isolation, but dissolved oxygen is absent from the best model for the Atlantic. Because our results concur with predictions from first principles of cell physiology, we interpret these findings to reflect the physiological selective pressures on cell morphology as determined by the physical environment. Moreover, these findings suggest that warming waters and the expansion of hypoxic zones associated with anthropogenic-induced climate change are more likely to impact benthic foraminiferal communities than changes in primary productivity or ocean acidification.