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Boron isotopes in foraminifera: systematics, biomineralisation, and CO2 reconstruction

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


The boron isotope composition of foraminifera provides a powerful tracer for CO2 change over geological time. This proxy is based on the equilibrium of boron and its isotopes in seawater, which is a function of pH. However while the chemical principles underlying this proxy are well understood, its reliability has previously been questioned, due to the difficulty of boron isotope (δ11B) analysis on foraminferal samples and questions regarding calibrations between δ11B and pH. This chapter reviews the current state of the δ11B-pH proxy in foraminfera, including the pioneering studies that established this proxy’s potential, and the recent work that has improved understanding of boron isotope systematics in foraminifera and applied this tracer to the geological record. The theoretical background of the δ11B-pH proxy is introduced, including an accurate formulation of the boron isotope mass balance equations. Sample preparation and analysis procedures are then reviewed, with discussion of sample cleaning, the potential influence of diagenesis, and the strengths and weaknesses of boron purification by column chromatography versus microsublimation, and analysis by NTIMS versus MC-ICPMS. The systematics of boron isotopes in foraminifera are discussed in detail, including results from benthic and planktic taxa, and models of boron incorporation, fractionation, and biomineralisation. Benthic taxa from the deep ocean have δ11B within error of borate ion at seawater pH. This is most easily explained by simple incorporation of borate ion at the pH of seawater. Planktic foraminifera have δ11B close to borate ion, but with minor offsets. These may be driven by physiological influences on the foraminiferal microenvironment; a novel explanation is also suggested for the reduced δ11B-pH sensitivities observed in culture, based on variable calcification rates. Biomineralisation influences on boron isotopes are then explored, addressing the apparently contradictory observations that foraminifera manipulate pH during chamber formation yet their δ11B appears to record the pH of ambient seawater. Potential solutions include the influences of magnesium-removal and carbon concentration, and the possibility that pH elevation is most pronounced during initial chamber formation under favourable environmental conditions. The steps required to reconstruct pH and pCO2 from δ11B are then reviewed, including the influence of seawater chemistry on boron equilibrium, the evolution of seawater δ11B, and the influence of second carbonate system parameters on δ11B-based reconstructions of pCO2. Applications of foraminiferal δ11B to the geological record are highlighted, including studies that trace CO2 storage and release during recent ice ages, and reconstructions of pCO2 over the Cenozoic. Relevant computer codes and data associated with this article are made available online.


Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationBoron Isotopes
Subtitle of host publicationThe Fifth Element
EditorsHorst Marschall, Gavin Foster
Place of PublicationCham
ISBN (Print)9783319646640, 9783319646664
Publication statusPublished - 2018

Publication series

NameAdvances in Isotope Geochemistry
ISSN (Print)2364-5105
ISSN (Electronic)2364-5113

    Research areas

  • Boron isotopes, Foraminifera, CO2, Biomineralisation, Proxy

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