MfN Micropaleo Lab

Creative Commons License
Johan Renaudie.

Paleogene Polar Plankton and Productivity

Late Eocene radiolarians from the tropical Pacific ocean. Photo by Johan Renaudie.

Project description

The goals of this project are to understand how phytoplankton in the polar regions responded to, and may have contributed to climate change between ca 30-40 million years ago. This information should help us understand how phytoplankton may behave, and influence climate in the near future, due to anthropogenic global warming. It is difficult to predict future plankton behavior solely from our historical knowledge of living plankton behavior or their biology, as the magnitude of future climate change far exceeds anything that occurred in the historical past, and will produce ocean conditions in polar regions that were last seen on earth only many millions of years ago.

A specific target of our study are the marine diatoms, a phytoplankton group that plays a key role in removing carbon dioxide from the earth's atmosphere. This group is known to have evolved rapidly and increased in abundance close to the time when the earth cooled and polar ice-sheets formed around 34 million years ago. We also will use biogeographic patterns in radiolarians, a zooplankton group common in polar regions, and with species distributions that closely track ocean water masses, to reconstruct changes in the extent of polar oceans. Several other fossil and geochemical measurements that indicate how intensely the oceans were capturing carbon will also be collected, and all data will be placed in context by developing computer simulations of ocean circulation, plankton productivity and carbon capture. A last, but very important goal is to at least indirectly estimate the risk that several modern, cold water adapted diatom species that are disporportionately responsible for carbon capture might actually go extinct due to the loss of suitable cold-water habitats in future warmer oceans. We will examine the response of past diatom species to major climate change to estimate how much environmental change is tolerated before species actually become extinct.

The project work will be led by Gayane Asatryan (also lead work on radiolarians), with David Lazarus as senior advisor, and Johan Renaudie, with lead responsibility for the diatom and ocean modelling modules. Two doctoral students will also work on these themes. The project is funded via the 'Make Our Planet Great Again' (MOPGA) special program of the DAAD and runs from August 2018 to June 2022.

Project collaborators

Project updates

2020-06-06 Public outreach event: "Plankton and Climate Change" booth at the MfN during the Lange Nacht der Wissenschaften.
2019-11-29 Public outreach event: Gabrielle Rodrigues de Faria and Johan Renaudie will be answering public questions about our project, as guests of a 'Fridays for Future'-related Museum Salon .
2019-11-06 Public lecture: "Antarktisches Mikroplankton und vergangene Klimawandel" by Johan Renaudie at the Museum für Naturkunde Magdeburg.
2019-08-31 Public outreach event: "The ocean’s plankton and climate change; how to see the future from the bottom of the ocean" booth at the MfN during the Lange Nacht der Museen.
2019-06-15 Public outreach event: "The ocean’s plankton and climate change; how to see the future from the bottom of the ocean" booth at the MfN during the Lange Nacht der Wissenschaften.
2019-05-01 Two PhD students were hired to work on the project. One, Gabrielle Rodrigues de Faria, will take the lead on the carbonate geochemistry, and the other, Volkan Özen, will work on diatom diversity.
2018-10-01 While waiting for our first results, feel free to read the project's proposal!

Project outputs


Lazarus, D., Renaudie, J., Asatryan, G., 2019. Diversity dynamics and climate change in Cenozoic marine siliceous plankton. NAPC 2019, Riverside, California, USA.


Özen V., Rodrigues de Faria G., Asatryan G., Renaudie J., Lazarus D.B., 2019. Investigating the role of Southern Ocean phytoplankton in the end Eocene climatic events. Paläontologische Gesellschaft 90. Jahrestagung, Munich, Germany.

Asatryan, G., Lazarus, D., Renaudie, J., 2019. The preliminary studies of plankton in the framework of the project "Paleogene Polar Plankton and Paleoproductivity". EGU General Assembly 2019, Vienna, Austria.

Asatryan, G., Lazarus, D., Renaudie, J., 2018. Paleogene polar phytoplankton and oceanic carbon sequestration. TMS Annual Conference, Leeds, UK.