To better understand Eocene climate and the isotopic record of paleotemperature preserved in shells of the gastropod Conus, we serially sampled and analyzed four modern and two Eocene shells from the U.S. Gulf Coast and the Gulf of Mexico. The modern shells are from nearshore Mexico off Veracruz, off-shore Texas (Stetson Bank), and nearshore Florida (Alligator Point). The fossil shells are of late middle Eocene (ca. 38 Ma) age from the Moodys Branch Formation in Mississippi (U.S.A.). The four modern shells yield three different oxygen-isotopic patterns of seasonality (asymmetrical saw-tooth, cuspate, and irregular) representing different seasonal growth patterns and environments. The asymmetrical sawtooth pattern occurs in the middle shelf specimen (Stetson Bank) and indicates rapid spring and declining autumn growth, presumably in response to increased nutrient supply and productivity associated with spring upwelling. The cuspate pattern indicates winter shutdown and occurs in the most northern specimen. The irregular pattern reflects seasonal freshwater input in a nearshore environment. The Eocene shells yield an asymmetrical sawtooth pattern suggestive of enhanced spring growth during upwelling.
Assuming a constant seawater δ18O of 0.24‰ (Lear et al., 2000), including correction for latitude (Zachos et al., 1994), oxygen isotope data yield a mean annual range of temperature (MART) for the late middle Eocene of 4–5°C, and a mean annual temperature (MAT) of 23°C. Taking the depth estimation (20–100 m) into consideration, sea surface temperatures are estimated to be >25°C for summer, ∼21°C for winter, and MAT of >23°C. Compared with modern temperatures and isotopic paleotemperatures of modern shells, the late middle Eocene Gulf Coast experienced warmer winter temperatures. The difference between modern and late middle Eocene climate can partly be attributed to the development of a continental cold front during the modern winter, and to the increased marine influence during the middle Eocene caused by the warmer water mass of the ocean.