Giant magnetofossils and hyperthermal events

L. Chang, A.P. Roberts, W. Williams, J.D. Fitz Gerald, J.C. Larrasoaña, L. Jovane, A.R. Muxworthy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Magnetotactic bacteria biomineralize magnetic minerals with precisely controlled size, morphology, and stoichiometry. These cosmopolitan bacteria are widely observed in aquatic environments. If preserved after burial, the inorganic remains of magnetotactic bacteria act as magnetofossils that record ancient geomagnetic field variations. They also have potential to provide paleoenvironmental information. In contrast to conventional magnetofossils, giant magnetofossils (most likely produced by eukaryotic organisms) have only been reported once before from Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM; 55.8 Ma) sediments on the New Jersey coastal plain. Here, using transmission electron microscopic observations, we present evidence for abundant giant magnetofossils, including previously reported elongated prisms and spindles, and new giant bullet-shaped magnetite crystals, in the Southern Ocean near Antarctica, not only during the PETM, but also shortly before and after the PETM. Moreover, we have discovered giant bullet-shaped magnetite crystals from the equatorial Indian Ocean during the Mid-Eocene Climatic Optimum (∼40 Ma). Our results indicate a more widespread geographic, environmental, and temporal distribution of giant magnetofossils in the geological record with a link to “hyperthermal” events. Enhanced global weathering during hyperthermals, and expanded suboxic diagenetic environments, probably provided more bioavailable iron that enabled biomineralization of giant magnetofossils. Our micromagnetic modelling indicates the presence of magnetic multi-domain (i.e., not ideal for navigation) and single domain (i.e., ideal for navigation) structures in the giant magnetite particles depending on their size, morphology and spatial arrangement. Different giant magnetite crystal morphologies appear to have had different biological functions, including magnetotaxis and other non-navigational purposes. Our observations suggest that hyperthermals provided ideal conditions for giant magnetofossils, and that these organisms were globally distributed. Much more work is needed to understand the interplay between magnetofossil morphology, climate, nutrient availability, and environmental variability.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)258-269
Number of pages12
JournalEarth and Planetary Science Letters
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2012


  • giant magnetofossils
  • hyperthermal
  • eukaryote
  • magnetotactic bacteria


Dive into the research topics of 'Giant magnetofossils and hyperthermal events'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this