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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Nacre tablet thickness records formation temperature in modern and fossil shells

  • Author(s): Gilbert, PUPA
  • Bergmann, KD
  • Myers, CE
  • Marcus, MA
  • DeVol, RT
  • Sun, CY
  • Blonsky, AZ
  • Tamre, E
  • Zhao, J
  • Karan, EA
  • Tamura, N
  • Lemer, S
  • Giuffre, AJ
  • Giribet, G
  • Eiler, JM
  • Knoll, AH
  • et al.

© 2016 Elsevier B.V. Nacre, the iridescent outer lining of pearls and inner lining of many mollusk shells, is composed of periodic, parallel, organic sheets alternating with aragonite (CaCO3) tablet layers. Nacre tablet thickness (TT) generates both nacre's iridescence and its remarkable resistance to fracture. Despite extensive studies on how nacre forms, the mechanisms controlling TT remain unknown, even though they determine the most conspicuous of nacre's characteristics, visible even to the naked eye. Thermodynamics predicts that temperature (T) will affect both physical and chemical components of biomineralized skeletons. The chemical composition of biominerals is well-established to record environmental parameters, and has therefore been extensively used in paleoclimate studies. The physical structure, however, has been hypothesized but never directly demonstrated to depend on the environment. Here we observe that the physical TT in nacre from modern and fossil shallow-water shells of the bivalves Pinna and Atrina correlates with T as measured by the carbonate clumped isotope thermometer. Based on the observed TT vs. T correlation, we anticipate that TT will be used as a paleothermometer, useful to estimate paleotemperature in shallow-water paleoenvironments. Here we successfully test the proposed new nacre TT thermometer on two Jurassic Pinna shells. The increase of TT with T is consistent with greater aragonite growth rate at higher T, and with greater metabolic rate at higher T. Thus, it reveals a complex, T-dependent biophysical mechanism for nacre formation.

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