Investigating preservation of stable isotope ratios in subfossil deep-sea proteinaceous coral skeletons as paleo-recorders of biogeochemical information over multimillennial timescales

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Paleoproxy records in deep-sea proteinaceous coral skeletons can reconstruct past ocean conditions on centennial to millennial time scales. Commonly recovered subfossil specimens could potentially extend these archives through the Holocene. However, protein matrix stability and integrity of stable isotope proxies over multi-millennial timescales in such specimens have never been examined. Here we compare amino acid (AA) composition together with bulk and AA compound-specific carbon (δ13C) and nitrogen (δ15N) isotopes in live-collected and subfossil (∼9.6–11.6 kyrs BP) Kulamanamana haumeaae deep-sea coral specimens from the central Pacific to understand the effects of long-duration benthic oxic exposure on primary coral chemistry. We find large coupled shifts in bulk δ15N (∼7‰) and δ13C (∼2‰) in the outermost portion (0–10 mm) of the subfossil coral, coincident with extensive alteration of the protein matrix. Microstructural changes in skeletal texture coincide with higher C/N ratios (+0.8) and isotope-based amino acid degradation parameters (e.g. ΣV ≥ 3), indicating extensive degradation of seawater-exposed gorgonin. However, interior gorgonin (>10 mm) retained amino acid molecular compositions (with exception of major Glycine loss) and bulk and amino acid-specific isotopic values that were similar to live-collected specimens. These results indicate that compound-specific isotope analysis of amino acids can reconstruct paleo-oceanographic biogeochemical and ecosystem information in subfossil corals beyond a clear diagenetic horizon, which is easily identifiable from an evaluation of C/N ratios together with the ΣV degradation proxy.

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Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta