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At two locations in the Atlantic Ocean (DSDP Sites 367 and 530) early to middle Cretaceous organic-carbon-rich beds ("black shales") were found to have significantly lower δ15N values (lower 15N/14N ratios) than adjacent organic-carbon-poor beds (white limestones or green claystones). While these lithologies are of marine origin, the black strata in particular have δ15N values that are significantly lower than those previously found in the marine sediment record and most contemporary marine nitrogen pools. In contrast, black, organic-carbon-rich beds at a third site (DSDP Site 603) contain predominantly terrestrial organic matter and have C- and N-isotopic compositions similar to organic matter of modern terrestrial origin.
The recurring 15N depletion in the marine-derived Cretaceous sequences prove that the nitrogen they contain is the end result of an episodic and atypical biogeochemistry. Existing isotopic and other data indicate that the low 15N relative abundance is the consequence of pelagic rather than post-depositional processes. Reduced ocean circulation, increased denitrification, and, hence, reduced euphoric zone nitrate availability may have led to Cretaceous phytoplankton assemblages that were periodically dominated by N2-fixing blue-green algae, a possible source of this sediment 15N-depletion. Lack of parallel isotopic shifts in Cretaceous terrestrially-derived nitrogen (Site 603) argues that the above change in nitrogen cycling during this period did not extend beyond the marine environment.