During the Carnian, oligotrophic shallow-water regions of the western Tethys were occupied by small, coral-rich patch reefs. Scleractinian corals, which already contributed to the formation of the reef structure, owed their position most probably to the symbiosis with dinoflagellate algae (zooxanthellae). Using microstructural (regularity of growth increments) and geochemical (oxygen and carbon stable isotopes) criteria of zooxanthellae symbiosis, we investigated whether this partnership was widespread among Carnian scleractinians from the Italian Dolomites (locality Alpe di Specie). Although corals from this locality are renowned from excellent mineralogical preservation (aragonite), their skeletons were rigorously tested against traces of diagenesis Irrespective of their growth forms, well preserved skeletons of corals from the Dolomites, most frequently revealed regular growth bands (low values of coefficient of variation) typical of modern zooxanthellate corals. Paradoxically, some Carnian taxa (Thamnasteriomorpha frechi and Thamnasteriomorphasp.)with highly integrated thamnasterioid colonies which today are formed exclusively by zooxanthellate corals, showed irregular fine-scale growth bands (coefficient of variation of 40% and 41% respectively) that could suggest their asymbiotic status. However, similar irregular skeletal banding is known also in some modern agariciids (Leptoseris fragilis) which are symbiotic with zooxanthellae. This may point to a similar ecological adaptation of Triassic taxa with thamnasterioid colonies. Contrary to occasionally ambiguous interpretation of growth banding, all examined Carnian corals exhibited lack of distinct correlation between carbon (δC range between 0.81‰ and 5.81‰) and oxygen (δO values range between −4.21‰ and −1.06‰) isotope composition of the skeleton which is consistent with similar pattern in modern zooxanthellates. It is therefore highly likely, that Carnian scleractinian corals exhibited analogous ecological adaptations as modern symbiotic corals and that coral-algal symbiosis that spread across various clades of Scleractinia preceded the reef bloom at the end of the Triassic.
Frankowiak, K., Roniewicz, E., & Stolarski, J. (2021). Photosymbiosis in Late Triassic scleractinian corals from the Italian Dolomites. PeerJ, 9, e11062. doi:10.7717/peerj.11062
We would like to thank Antonio Russo (Modena) for organization of the field trip in the Dolomites and donation of some coral material for this study. We would like to thank Francesca Benzoni (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia) and Michel Pichon (Museum of Tropical Queesnland Townsville, Australia) who provided comparative material of modern corals for microstructural analyses.