Coral Reefs

, 30:791 | Cite as

Coral skeletal carbon isotopes (δ13C and Δ14C) record the delivery of terrestrial carbon to the coastal waters of Puerto Rico



Tropical small mountainous rivers deliver a poorly quantified, but potentially significant, amount of carbon to the world’s oceans. However, few historical records of land–ocean carbon transfer exist for any region on Earth. Corals have the potential to provide such records, because they draw on dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC) for calcification. In temperate systems, the stable- (δ13C) and radiocarbon (Δ14C) isotopes of coastal DIC are influenced by the δ13C and Δ14C of the DIC transported from adjacent rivers. A similar pattern should exist in tropical coastal DIC and hence coral skeletons. Here, δ13C and Δ14C measurements were made in a 56-year-old Montastraea faveolata coral growing ~1 km from the mouth of the Rio Fajardo in eastern Puerto Rico. Additionally, the δ13C and Δ14C values of the DIC of the Rio Fajardo and its adjacent coastal waters were measured during two wet and dry seasons. Three major findings were observed: (1) synchronous depletions of both δ13C and Δ14C in the coral skeleton are annually coherent with the timing of peak river discharge, (2) riverine DIC was always more depleted in δ13C and Δ14C than seawater DIC, and (3) the correlation of δ13C and Δ14C was the same in both coral skeleton and the DIC of the river and coastal waters. These results indicate that coral skeletal δ13C and Δ14C are recording the delivery of riverine DIC to the coastal ocean. Thus, coral records could be used to develop proxies of historical land–ocean carbon flux for many tropical regions. Such information could be invaluable for understanding the role of tropical land–ocean carbon flux in the context of land-use change and global climate change.


Coral geochemistry δ13Δ14Dissolved inorganic carbon Puerto Rico Land–ocean carbon flux 



AGG was supported by grants from the Andrew Mellon Foundation and the NSF Chemical Oceanography Program (OCE-0610487). RPM was a graduate student in Grottoli’s lab, and partially supported by an OSU Presidential Fellowship. RPM received additional funding from AAPG, AGU, GSA, and the Friends of Orton Hall, and was supported by a USGS Mendenhall Fellowship during manuscript preparation. Field assistance was provided by H. Anguerre, M. Canals, M. Cathey, C. Malachowski, C. Pacheco, and B. Williams. Coral x-radiography was facilitated by K. Helmle and R. Dodge at the NSU Oceanographic Center. Laboratory assistance was provided by M. Cathey, Y. Matsui, C. Paver, L. Swierk, and H. Wu, and L. Travers assisted with figure preparation. J. Bauer, A. Carey, Y-P. Chin, N. Prouty, B. Rosenheim, M. Saltzman, B. Williams, and an anonymous person provided careful reviews and suggestions which improved the overall quality of the manuscript. Any use of trade names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the US Government.


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Copyright information

© United States Geological Survey 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.US Geological SurveySaint Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science CenterSaint PetersburgUSA
  2. 2.School of Earth SciencesThe Ohio State UniversityColumbusUSA

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