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Curator of Micropalaeontology's blog

10 Posts tagged with the microfossil tag
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Answering questions about the collections and subject areas of expertise is a 'bread and butter' job for a curator that often goes unnoticed at end-of-year reporting. Since January 1996 I have kept notebooks recording details of all the external enquiries I have answered. In this post I look back over my enquiries books to choose some that gave me most satisfaction, made me sad, nostalgic, resulted in important discoveries, were smelly or just weird!

 

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My enquiry books with details of every enquiry I have answered since 1996.

 

I have been asked so many different things over the years. Here are some general themes with the most common listed at the top:

 

  • Can I visit the collections/micropalaeontology library?
  • Do you have a particular species in the collection?
  • Do you have material collected by so-and-so?
  • Do you have Cretaceous/Jurassic (or any other age) material from (substitute name of country/city/town/site etc)?
  • Can you provide an image of one of your specimens?
  • Can I borrow material?
  • Please can you provide a copy of one of your papers or an article present in the Museum Library?
  • Please can you peer review a manuscript for a journal/book/magazine?
  • Do you have any volunteer opportunities?
  • Do you have any job opportunities?
  • Can you identify my fossil? (Usually these are images for microfossils but I have on rare occasions received actual microfossil specimens by post)
  • Who do I contact to gain access to the dinosaur collection?
  • Can you provide information about techniques to collect, process and illustrate microfossils?
  • Please provide a letter of support for our grant proposal to fund a project that will use your collections.
  • Can you provide a reference for a job application by one of your former volunteers or staff members?
  • Can you carry out some commercial work to date a rock sample?
  • Can you present an evening lecture at our local geological society?
  • Please provide information about UK stratigraphy or microfossil collecting sites.
  • Please provide advice on curation policies and procedures.
  • Please comment on these museum display/book figure captions.
  • Can you provide career advice?
  • Can you value or provide advice on how to value museum objects?
  • Can you provide information for a press article?
  • Can we film you?
  • And finally... Tell me all you know about micropalaeontology (yes, I was once asked this).

 

Who asks the questions?

 

Most questions come from academics or students, but we also deal with commercial enquirers, local amateur groups, artists, general members of the public, media and personal contacts. My post on who visits our collections and why? looks at this in more detail.

 

Have the types of enquiries changed over 20 years?

 

When I first arrived at the Museum many enquiries came from contacts I had made prior to coming to the Museum and were often requests for literature or details of my PhD work. At the time I was in charge of the Former BP Collection. Nobody knew we had it and BP had placed some restrictions on access so very few of my enquiries related to collections access.

 

As my career progressed I became responsible for larger parts of the collection until in 2011 I became responsible for the entire microfossil collection and now receive at least one enquiry per working day of the year and five times as many enquiries per year as I did at the start of my career.

 

What enquiry gave me the most satisfaction to answer?

 

Looking back it was particularly satisfying to see enquiries that led to visits that started major research projects or resulted in key publications. In a previous post I mentioned a visit by Paul Pearson of Cardiff University that initiated a long term research project on exceptionally preserved material from Tanzania.

 

Which enquiries made me most nostalgic?

 

These would have to be ones where I made first contact with people who subsequently became colleagues or long term collaborators. For example I was amazed to read that I first met Dermeval do Carmo when he visited in 1997. He recently invited me to Brazil to give a course on managing collections. Another enquiry from the late 1990s was from another Brazilian - Martha Richter who wrote a paper with me, subsequently applied for a job here at the Museum and later became my boss!

 

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Part of one of the ichthyosaurs on display in Waterhouse Way at the Museum and the outline of an ichthyosaur used elsewhere in the display.

 

What was my smelliest enquiry?

 

When I first came to the museum in 1993 there used to be a desk in the department foyer where enquiries officer Vie Wasey sat and members of the public would bring specimens for identification. When she was away we took it in turns to stand in for her. One time a member of the public brought a shoe box in which he said there a was an ichthyosaur skull he'd found on the beach at Lyme Regis. As he unwrapped the specimen a terrible rotting stench filled the room and I sent him quickly off to the Zoology Department as it turned out to be a dolphin skull!

 

What enquiry made me saddest?

 

I was once standing in for my boss and as a result I received a detailed enquiry relating to a specimen in a collection managed by one of my colleagues. Shortly afterwards the enquirer sent me an irate e-mail asking why I could not immediately locate and give advice on a specimen in another part of the Museum collection that they wanted to cast/borrow/prepare. 'Surely anyone should be able to do this?' was their response. That particular correspondence prompted me to write a blog post entitled Do we need specialist curators?

 

What was my strangest enquiry?

 

In the very early days of email correspondence I was contacted by someone who was convinced that I was witholding information about microfossils present in the stones at Stonehenge. It took some time before they stopped asking me for details. They even asked if they could visit to see the collections as they did not believe me.

 

Did any enquiries lead to important discoveries?

 

In 2006 I was sent a sample of limestone to analyse by an oil company in Oman. They wanted me to recover conodonts to date a rock formation. The rock contained no conodonts but it did contain tiny fragments of some of the oldest fossil fish ever discovered. Since then I have visited Oman twice to collect more and I have been sent much more rock from Oman to analyse that has yielded both conodonts and fish and has led to several publications.

 

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Reconstruction of the early fish Sacabambaspis (with permission from Ivan Sansom, University of Birmingham) and a scanning electron microscope image of a Sacabambaspis scale from the Ordovician of Oman.

 

My job is changing over the next few months to 'Collections Manager of Micropalaeontology, Petrology and Ores'. This means that curators under my management will have responsiblity for answering many of the types of collections enquiries I have listed above. I have decided to stop keeping my enquiries book but I shall continue to blog!

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The quick answer to this is no. If you read my post on who visits our collections and why? you will see that we host visits to the microfossil collections from local amateur groups, artists and very occasionally historians. One of my visitors last week, artist Jennifer Mitchell seemed genuinely surprised that we so readily open the door to visitors who are not scientists in professional positions, or university students. This post investigates how she found us and whether we do enough to encourage visits from non-scientists.

 

Haeckel and the radiolarians

 

Jennifer was enquiring about the historical collections of famous evolutionary biologist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) and in particular material collected on the H.M.S. Challenger Expedition of 1872-1876. Haeckel published some amazing illustrations of marine life including illustrations of the microscopic radiolarians. Haeckel's work inspired the famous father and son Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka to create glass models of radiolarians, examples of which can been seen in our Treasures Gallery. Jennifer wanted to see the original material from which Haeckel's illustrations were created.

 

Eucyrtidium_Haeckel_Plate.jpgSome artwork from a monograph published in 1862 by Ernst Haeckel on the radiolarians, alongside a Blaschka glass model of a radiolarian inspired by Haeckel's work and displayed (on rotation) in our Treasures Gallery.

 

I was interested to hear how Jennifer knew to contact me to arrange access. Her initial enquiry came via the Museum Archives web pages. The archivist responded that Jennifer needed to contact my colleague Miranda Lowe in Life Sciences and Miranda passed the enquiry to me when she realised that it related to our microfossil collections.

 

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One of the Ernst Haeckel slides that Jennifer Mitchell viewed during her visit. Haeckel created sets of slides that he sold to various museums including the British Museum of Natural History.

 

Less than 5% of our enquiries about the microfossil collections come via the Museum website, where there is a link to a general enquiries e-mail. This general email then gets forwarded to the relevant curator or researcher for them to deal with. The vast majority of the enquiries I get are direct from people that have had some prior connection with me or the Museum.

 

Does this mean that people find it difficult to know who to contact and are therefore put off enquiring about our collections? Jennifer's example suggests that this might be the case, although she did finally find the relevant person via several emails.

 

Let's digitise

 

Are we doing enough to let people know about our behind the scenes collections? Our website gives some details but the vast majority of our microfossil collections are not findable via a search facility on our site because they are not computer registered. Mainly visitors know of our collections because of the publications that cite them.

 

The Museum is engaging in a major digitisation project aimed at digitising 20 million of our specimens in the next 5 years. This will almost certainly help, but my experience of delivering collections information to the web is that you still need to keep telling the relevant audiences that you can search for specimens on our site by advertising the URL.

 

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This is what Haeckel saw down the microscope. It's amazing to see the material he used to create the illustrations in his famous monographs. Even with modern microscopes the depth of field issue means that the specimens are never all in focus at once hence the blurry nature of this image.

 

Would we get more enquiries if we more proactively advertised contact details and that we facilitate access to our behind the scenes collections to a wider audience by appointment? Almost certainly we would. I see it as an important part of my role to make people aware that our collections are here to be used by whoever wants to use them. This was the over-riding reason for me in starting this blog.

 

However, hosting an increased number of visits and maintaining visitor facilities is a major drain on resources such as staff time. I firmly believe that it is our duty to make these collections available to everyone, but it does come at a cost.

 

A wider reach with limited resources?

 

Some of my colleagues in charge of popular and high profile parts of our collection host a constant string of visitors, so advertising to a wider audience would not be appropriate because resources are not available to cope with increased visitor numbers. I would argue that the Museum galleries allow access to a wider audience for these types of collection (e.g. dinosaurs, meteorites, early humans, mammoths).

 

For the microfossil collections, where we have virtually nothing on display, it is a balancing act between advertising to promote access and encouraging so many visitors that we don't have the resources to deal with them.

 

So our collections are available to a wider audience beyond professional scientists and students, but I would argue that we could do more to advertise our microfossil collection to all audiences by appointment. Jennifer suggested 'to be able to contact the curator or appropriate person directly from the website and let them deal with the request directly would be more efficient for everyone especially the curators'.

 

It will be really interesting to see how enquiries access is handled when the current project to revamp our Museum website is finished. I'd also love to hear any opinions on access to behind the scenes collections, particularly if you have ever tried to find out about and arrange a visit to our microfossil collections.

 

Search our digitised microfossil collections

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One of my curatorial predecessors Randolf Kirkpatrick (1863-1950) thought that larger benthic foraminifera (LBFs) were so important that he published a theory that they were vital to the formation of all rocks on earth. Our collection of LBFs has received relatively little attention over the 20 years I have been at the Museum, but recently it has been the most viewed part of the microfossil collection.

 

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Some images of larger benthic foraminifera (LBF) taken by Antonino Briguglio, a recent SYNTHESYS-funded visitor to our collections. The images represent specimens roughly the size of a small fingerprint.

 

Traditionally LBFs have been difficult to study but new techniques, particularly CT scanning, are changing this perception. This post tells the story of Kirkpatrick and explains how the collection is currently being used for studies in stratigraphy, oil exploration, past climates and biodiversity hot spots.

 

Larger benthic foraminifera (LBF)

 

Larger benthic foraminifera are classified as microfossils because they were produced by a single celled organism, but they can reach a size of several centimetres. Their study is difficult because it usually relies on destructive techniques such as thin sectioning to make precise identifications. My first line manager at the Museum Richard Hodgkinson was an expert at producing these thin sections. He described the technique of cutting the specimens exactly through the centre as an art rather than science. Sadly there are very few people in the world skilled enough to make these sections, but thankfully the Museum collection is packed with LBF thin sections available for study.

 

Randolf Kirkpatrick's Nummulosphere

 

Randolf Kirkpatrick was Assistant Keeper of Lower Invertebrates in the Zoology Department of the British Museum (Natural History), and worked at the Museum from 1886 to his retirement in 1927. He published on sponges but is most famous for his series of four books entitled The Nummulosphere that he had to pay to publish himself because his ideas were so unusual. In the Introduction to part four he writes:

'Fourteen years have passed since the publication of Part III of the Nummulosphere studies, but the scientific world has entirely ignored the work to its own real and serious loss... I think it not amiss to call attention to the financial aspect. Since its beginning in 1908, this research has cost me much over £2000, all paid out of a modest salary and pension, and certainly by a cheerful giver.'

 

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Kirkpatrick developed a theory that at one stage Earth was covered with water and LBFs of the genus Nummulites accumulated into a layer he called 'The Nummulosphere'. He went on to suggest that all rocks we see now were subsequently derived from this nummulosphaeric layer and he figured examples in his books of supposed nummulitic textures he had seen in granites and even meteorites.

 

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I think that Kirkpatrick would be very interested to hear that scientists are looking for evidence of life on Mars and that meteorites may hold the key to this. Obviously the evidence of life, if it arrives, is almost certainly not going to be a LBF. However, I think that if he were alive today, Kirkpatrick would be very interested to hear of the renewed interest in our LBF collection and that his earlier publications on sponges have also received renewed interest. These publications had been largely ignored because of his later publications of the Nummulosphere theory.

 

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Image of palm-sized model of a nummulite made in plaster of Paris based on an original illustration by Zittel (1876), showing strands of protoplasm colonising its complex shell.

 

Find out more about Kirkpatrick from the Museum Archives or read the article entitled 'Crazy Old Randolf Kirkpatrick' by Steven Jay Gould in his book The Panda's Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History. Read on to find out about some of the projects that the collection has been used for.

 

Evaluating past climates and extinctions

 

Naturalis Biodiversity Center researcher Laura Cotton studied for her PhD in the UK and has been a regular visitor to our LBF collections. She borrowed some rock sample material from Melinau Gorge in Sarawak, Malaysia that was worked on by one of the leading LBF workers of the time, former Natural History Museum Palaeontology Department Associate Keeper Geoff Adams (1926-1995). It would have been almost impossible to arrange for this material to be recollected.

 

In a study published earlier this year, Laura carried out destructive techniques on these samples to release whole rock isotope data that has provided information about the position of an isotope excursion that relates to a period of global cooling and climate disruption. Laura showed that an extinction of LBFs previously described by Geoff Adams occurred prior to this isotope excursion, a situation she had previously described in Tanzania. This suggests that this Eocene-Oligocene extinction of LBFs is a global phenomenon, closely linked to changes in climate around 34 million years ago.

 

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Boxes at our Wandsworth stores containing samples from which much of our larger benthic foraminifera (LBF) collection was obtained. Please note that the temporary box labels in this 2007 picture have now been replaced!

 

Most of our micropalaeontology rock sample collections are housed at our Wandsworth outstation and this project is a very good example of how duplicate samples are valuable resources for later studies using new techniques.

 

Studying hotspots of biodiversity in SE Asia

 

Naturalis researcher Willem Renema has been studying LBFs from SE Asia as part of a large multidisciplinary group including my colleague Ken Johnson (corals). The 'coral triangle' situated in SE Asia contains the highest diversity of marine life on Earth today. Back in time, water flowed from the tropical west Pacific into the Indian Ocean (Indonesian Throughflow) but this closed during Oligocene - Miocene times roughly 25 million years ago.

 

This interval in geological time is characterised by an apparent increase in reef-building and the diversification other faunas including the LBFs and molluscs, leading to the formation of the present day 'coral triangle'. The project aims to investigate how changes in the environment led to the high diversity of species present today.

 

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Some slides from the Geoff Adams Collection from SE Asia scanned by Malaysian intern student Zoann Low.

 

Our LBF collections are very strong from this area of the world following the work of Geoff Adams. Two curatorial interns Faisal Akram and Zoann Low from Universiti Teknologie PETRONAS in Malaysia have helped greatly to enhance this area of the collection by providing images and additional data relating to Geoff Adams' collection and allowing us to prepare data to be released on the Museum data portal and for this 'coral triangle' project.

 

Supporting Middle East stratigraphy

 

One of our most important collections, the former Iraq Petroleum Collection contains many LBFs that help to define the stratigraphy of oil bearing rocks of the Middle East. Some significant early oil micropalaeontologists such as Eames and Smout of BP also contributed to the collection.

 

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Recent donation from Oman of some Permian larger benthic foraminifera (LBF) of the genus Parafusulina.

 

A major publication on the collection by Museum Associate John Whittaker and others is being updated by John and a team of scientists including our own Steve Stukins and Tom Hill. We look forward to seeing this published in a major book in the next couple of years.

 

Atlas of larger benthic foraminifera

 

LBF worker Antonino Briguglio was successful with an application to SYNTHESYS, a European fund that facilitates visits to museum collections for European researchers. He visited us in March at the same time as Russian LBF worker Elena Zakrevskaya as part of work to compile an Atlas of LBFs. Antonino's work has included CT scanning LBF specimens and a video showing the architecture of the internal chambers of Operculina ammonoides:

 

 

 

 

CT scanning has opened up a whole new method for studying LBFs and made it much easier to create virtual sections through specimens without the need for expert and time consuming thin sectioning. We hope that our collection can be an excellent source for those wishing to CT scan LBFs and recently we were in negotiations with long term Museum visitor Zukun Shi who is studying fusuline specimens like the ones illustrated on my hand above.

 

This collection may never be as important as Kirkpatrick thought it was. However, it is a really excellent example of one that has become more relevant recently as new techniques are applied to its study. 

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A few weeks ago the Center for the Future of Museums blogged on how to get your museum blog widely read, sadly stating that writing for a niche audience like micropalaeontology is unlikely to be successful. As a reply I thought I would share my own experiences on what has worked for me and what hasn't, with nine tips for museum bloggers.

 

Choose an eye-catching title and subject

The title and subject ultimately convince the reader whether to visit your post or not. I agree with the Center for the Future of Museums that blogs with titles and subjects that are of general interest will be more widely read, as the post asking Do we need specialist curators? has shown. However, it is also possible to write about your specialist collection and make it relevant to a general audience, such as What microfossils tell us about early humans in Britain or When microfossils meet dinosaurs. Other more specific posts describing collections, databasing or risk management have not been so well read.

 

Utilise social media to advertise

I quickly realised that there was no point in posting and just hoping that people will automatically find what you have written. Posts tweeted by @NHM_London, which currently has over 400,000 followers, receive significantly more hits than others. We started the @NHM_Micropalaeo Twitter feed to provide micropalaeontology news from the Museum and to advertise posts from this blog. Other relevant advertisement vehicles have been sites such as Facebook, Reddit or LinkedIn, while #AskACurator day on twitter was also a great opportunity to publicise our collections by highlighting previously published blog posts.

 

Build links with other bloggers and webmasters

Link regularly to associated websites and write to the site owners to let them know that you have done so. I link regularly to the Geological Curators' Group, Forams.eu and The Micropalaeontological Society and they have all provided reciprocal links. Other sites such the Museum website, Focus Magazine and blogger Tony Edger have provided links to my writing, prolonging the reading life for some posts way beyond the point when they are not visible on the blog front page. 

 

Link to other sites clearly

The visibility of your blog to search engines such as Google is significantly enhanced if you link via a string of text that describes the link. For example, it is best to link to The Micropalaeontological Society rather than writing 'click here'.

 

Run your own email distribution list

Most sites, like this one, have the option to subscribe and receive updates when new posts go live. This works reasonably well if a lot of people make the effort to create an account and log on to follow your posts. However, most readers I have spoken to do not do this. I have lost count how many times I have heard people say 'I like your blog but I haven't looked at it recently'. I have set up a mailing list based on people I regularly deal with and send a message out every time I post a new blog. Posting blog links to relevant academic listservers has also been successful in generating additional readers.

 

Write for an audience

I write all posts as if I am explaining to my mother or mother-in-law, but at the same time making the post interesting to experts in the field of micropalaeontology wanting the latest news from the Museum. I feel confident that I am reaching my target audiences as I have been pleased to receive feedback  from a wide range of readers, including:

  • university academics
  • students
  • school teachers
  • amateur micropalaeontologists
  • members of the public

 

Think carefully about your reasons for blogging

In my first post I gave the following reason for starting this blog: 

In this age of austerity, I believe that we should be highlighting the good news coming from the Museum so that the applications and relevance of our collections, including those from micropaleontology, are brought to people’s attention.

Even when writing more general posts like this one, I have this theme in my head while writing so it is always possible to include information about our collections and their relevance.

 

Get your timing right

There is no point in publishing a Microfossil Christmas card blog piece on Christmas Eve and hoping that lots of people will be logging on to read it. Similarly if you are going to tweet about your latest post it is best to do it at at time when most people are likely to read it. My successful post on How to become a curator? was timed to coincide with half term and a gallery exercise called 'curious curators'. Another post went live to coincide with the opening of our Treasures Gallery at the Museum.

 

Include a good balance of personal narrative

How much you write about yourself and your feelings depends on your writing style and subject of your blog. My blog highlights the collections and their use and not myself, so I sometimes feel that I do not include enough of my own personal story. Posts where I have shown how passionate I am about collections and collecting like my post on 'How to become a curator have been well received though.

 

Post regularly

If you don't get overnight success then don't give up. It takes time to gain a following, build relationships with other bloggers, webmasters or fellow Tweeters. By definition the more often you post, the more hits you'll get. People are more likely to follow or keep checking a blog that is active.

 

It has been hard work but as a curator I feel that blogging about my collections has had a major impact on their profile and I would encourage any curator to do the same. In summary, if you write interesting material that gets tweeted and retweeted around the internet then people will read it, whether you are writing about 'niche collections' or not.

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This is my 50th blog post, so I thought I would look back and make a list of benefits that have come directly from blogging about my job and the collections in my care. These include an enhanced profile of the collection, help with collections management, fundraising, research collaboration offers and an enhanced personal profile.

 

There are probably more that can't be directly measured but here are 20 to be going on with:

 

Press coverage

1. The post on microfossil Christmas cards inspired an article in the Independent in December 2012.

2. The item on specialist curators was published in full on the Museums Association (MA) website.

3. The same post was one of the most read for 2012 on the MA website.

4. The Guardian used my post on specialist curators as a basis for an on-line poll.

5. The first paragraph of my post on volunteers was quoted in the Museums Journal under the title 'Best of Blogs'.

6. Images of slides from the collection were reproduced on the ScienceFocus website.

 

Collection management

7. I have been able to answer a number of internal and external enquiries by providing a link to blog posts.

8. A researcher from University College London has offered some grant money towards CT-scanning some of our holotype specimens.

9. Some readers have provided information to enhance the collections by identifying unnamed specimens.

10. I have been able to expand my knowledge about some important parts of the collection that previously I knew little about.

 

Collection usage

11. We have had a marked increase in the number of artists using the collection.

12. Some collection images featured on the blog have been sold via the Museum's Picture Library.

13. We have had three exhibition loan requests to display microfossil-related items, including a CT scan.

 

My research

14. I was asked to co-author a paper following my post on virtual loans.

15. I have had a request to participate in an exciting research project on ocean acidification that includes funding for more CT scanning.

16. A high profile journal has asked me to review a microfossil-related book.

 

Advisory role

17. A number of people have requested career advice, with one recently accepting a job in collection management.

18. We were approached by PalaeoCast to make a podcast about micropalaeontology.

19. I have had requests for advice on starting a blog.

 

And finally, relating to my personal development ....

 

20. I feel that blogging has helped me to write faster and more concisely.

 

I hope you will agree that this blog has enhanced the profile of the micropalaeontology collections both within and outside the Museum. There are still plenty of interesting issues and collections to write about. Please keep reading to find out how our microfossil specimens play a major role in climate studies and how a microfossil sculpture park in China relates to our collections.

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The Museum has been running an inspiring schools activity under the "How Science Works" strand of the National Curriculum, in which children carry out their own microfossil research project. In just over an hour, they investigate the microfossils in some Gault Clay collected from Folkestone, and learn the processes behind research including how scientists collect data, use it to solve problems and publish their findings.

 

Feedback from the school groups shows that it is a fun and engaging way to learn about science away from the normal classroom environment. After completing the exercise, many children indicated that they were more enthusiastic towards a career in science and some even felt that they were already scientists!

How_Science_works_sally_871X9998.jpgSally Collins and Jamie Robinson about to start a "How Science Works" session with a school group at the Museum.

 

The activity was developed by Sally Collins, currently part of the Museum Content Development Team, and Dr Craig Koch, while he was studying for his PhD in the Palaeontology Department. It can now be run entirely by Museum educators, while the use of commonly available kit such as washing up bowls and plastic screw topped bottles means that there is potential for holding this schools exercise in locations away from the Museum.

 

The 'How Science Works' activity

 

Before the exercise, Gault Clay from Folkestone is crushed into 1-2cm lumps while still wet, and subsequently left to dry. At the start of the class, approximately 100g is then placed in a plastic screw-topped container and boiling water added. After the container has cooled down a bit and some cold water added to bring it down to a safe temperature, it is shaken rather like a cocktail shaker.

 

While the sediment is soaking, there is time for the class leader to explain the exercise and how micropalaeontology is used in earth science research. A video is shown, featuring Craig and his supervisor Dr Jeremy Young on a research cruise and working in the laboratories at the Museum.

 

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Sieving sediment in the classroom.

 

After soaking for 15 minutes, the sediment is sieved, dried in a microwave and rehydrated before a final sieving and drying. The microwave heating and subsequent drying ensures that the process can be carried out in a short period of time.

 

The small microfossil residues produced are then examined under a microscope by the children and a chart is provided to help them identify the microfossils present. By analysing the geological ranges of all the species present, it is quickly possible for the children to determine the age of the clay.

 

This is similar to the work that a micropalaeontologist might carry out on a well site, where age information could be used by the drillers to decide to continue drilling or stop. Drilling a well too deep can be a costly mistake so sometimes the micropalaeontologist on a well site is put in a major decision-making position!

 

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The chart used by the students to identify their microfossils and  decide on the age of the clay.

 

There is still time for a final class discussion of the results obtained by each group and how scientists communicate their findings by publishing their data. The session I attended recently ended with a very entertaining discussion amongst the children about how the 'peer review process' effectively makes sure that scientists' results are checked before they are published.

 

Teacher and student feedback

 

Some of the school class teachers have provided feedback, including:

'Perfectly engaging, challenging and inspiring

'The students were pretty curious and asked a lot of questions which in my opinion shows that the workshop had a stimulating effect on them.'

Children taking the exercise have also had the chance to feedback. Here is a selection of answers given when participants were asked if taking the class had affected their plans for taking science:

'I was thinking about studying science for A-level beforehand -  my visit today has reinforced that'

'Yes makes me want to study science more'

Yes, I’d love to do something related to micropalaeontology'

Yes because now I am thinking of becoming a scientist'

Yes, I will go home and purchase a microscope!'

'I will take my science lessons more seriously'

'No it has improved my desire to study science more. I am inspired.'

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The foraminifera Epistomena spinulifera; one of the age indicative species of microfossils in the clay.

 

When the children were asked to say what they 'didn’t know or never realised' some answers were:

I never realised that ...

‘you could have so much fun with clay’

'there were microfossils in clay'

'I do actually like biology'

'that rocks could be dated!'

'science facts had to go through a long process before getting published'

 

Finally some general comments that I think sum up the impact of the exercise nicely:

'We got to do our own experiment and discover things and come to a conclusion which made us feel like scientists'

[I enjoyed it very much] 'because it was really fun and I learnt more than I probably would in a normal science lesson'

'I enjoyed looking at the fossils from millions of years back and it makes me feel special to realise that I am the first one to see them'

[I enjoyed it very much] 'because we could be scientists and actually find the results on our own. Rather than a classroom where you are told what happens and told the results.'

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This positive feedback from previous "How Science Works" schools vists shows that it is a very successful format for learning. Unfortunately it is not currently being run by the Museum due to lack of bookings and staff resource issues. Sally Collins reports that 'we could only run it for half a class at a time due to the space limitations of the Earth Science Teaching Room and the need for everyone to be able to access sinks and electricity. The trend in the past couple of years has been for secondary schools to bring larger and larger groups.'

 

The exercise has been modified to use washing up bowls instead of sinks and the use of microscopes in other spaces in the Museum such as the Earth Lab mean that larger groups could be accomodated in the future.

 

The Gault Clay exercise is currently being run successfully at Peterborough Museum. My colleague Dr Steve Stukins has been working with Peterborough and the Natural History Museum's Real World Science Officer Hannah Pritchard to develop a similar hands-on activity using local Oxford Clay. I look forward to hearing about the Oxford Clay exercise and hope to see the successful Gault Clay schools activity running again at the Museum soon.

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My work diary of last week, in which members of the public put a valuable part of the collection at risk with their smart phones, tiny floating snails cause a flurry of visitors and microfossils are mentioned on the Test Match Special cricket commentary(!) in a varied week for the curator of micropalaeontology.

 

Monday

 

First up is a trip across the Museum to the Nature Live Studio with some delicate specimens that will be the subject of my two public talks later in the day. We can't move large items across the Museum during opening hours and, with the galleries filled with summer visitors, this is more than sensible at present.

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In the Nature Live Studio with host Tom Simpson - a CT-scan of a Blaschka glass radiolarian model on the screen.

 

All of the specimens in my care bar the one in the Treasures Gallery are housed behind the scenes, so regular visitors might not even know that we have microfossil collections. A previous head of palaeontology collections calculated that we have as few as 0.001 per cent of our fossil collections on display.

 

If you haven't been to one yet, the Nature Live events are a great way to bring these parts of our collections out for the public and allow us to talk about our science. The incredibly delicate and unique Blaschka Glass models of radiolarian microfossils are always a big hit, but we have to ask a smart phone-brandishing throng of children and their parents to move away from the specimens after the first show as a mother leans over the barrier and takes a picture on her phone from right above the specimen. We add two extra barriers for the second show!

 

Tuesday


I've had an enquiry from The Geological Magazine asking me to review a book that I have almost finished reading. I have to think carefully about saying yes or no. Receiving a free copy is the usual bonus for undertaking these tasks but, as I have a copy already, dedicating a lot of time to a review does not seem so appealing.

 

I decide that I shall send the extra copy to my student in Malaysia but I think I will wait until after she has finished writing up her MSc thesis. Her first chapter arrives today for comment as do some proofs for a book chapter on microfossil models that I have written. Much of the day is spent checking these and providing additional information requested by the editors of the book. It will be about the history of study of microfossils and will have an image of one of our microscope slides on the cover.

 

Wednesday

 

The galleries are packed with summer visitors but it is relatively quiet behind the scenes with many staff on annual leave, away on study trips, conferences or fieldwork.

 

This quieter period is a good time to catch up on some of the documentation backlog so today I finish documenting a new donation, continue to work on a large dataset relating to specimens from the Challenger Collection, and register 30 Former BP Microfossil Collection specimens that are due to go out on loan to the USA.

 

I spent my first 6 years at the Museum on a temporary contract curating the Former BP Microfossil Collection so it is always satisfying to see it being used by scientists. We have big plans for this collection in the future. However, I feel that I will need to do more than wait for a rare quiet day if I am to meet my part of the databasing targets set by the Museum. We plan to have details of 20 million of our specimens on our website within 5 years.

 

Thursday

 

An enquiry has come in this week about our heteropod collection. These are tiny planktonic gastropods, or literally floating snails. They are of great interest to scientists looking to quantify the effects of ocean acidification because they secrete their shells of calcium carbonate directly from the seawater that they lived in.

 

Measurement of carbon and oxygen isotopes from fossil examples can give details of the composition of ancient oceans and help to quantify changes over time. I mention the enquiry to staff in the Life Sciences Department and three visitors arrive to look at our collection within a day, including two from the British Antarctic Survey looking to develop projects on ocean acidification.

 

Friday


It is back to documentation again, a task I often save for days when the cricket is on. I am amazed when I hear dinoflagellates mentioned during the Test Match Special commentary. Dinoflagellates are protists that are a major consituent of modern and fossil plankton. We have thousands of glass slides of them here at the Museum within the micropalaeontology collections.

 

straussii_cookii_montage.jpgNew species of Australian Jurassic dinoflagellate Meiogonyaulax straussii (1-4) and Valvaeodinium cookii (16-20) published by Mantle and Riding (2012). Images courtesy of Dr Jim Riding, British Geological Survey.


A regular visitor to our collections who works at the British Geological Survey in Nottingham has described two new species of Jurassic microfossil from the NW Shelf of Australia and named them strausii and cookii after the former and current England cricket captains and Ashes-winning opening batsmen. It causes much merriment in the Museum microfossil team as another former England Captain, Michael Vaughan, remarks on the radio that they look rather like omelettes.

 

Cricket is the theme for today as I attend a lunchtime retirement party for a former cricketing colleague at the Science Museum next door. I leave a colleague to take a visitor to lunch but come back to find that he has gone home sick and the visitor is still here with a list of requests that account for the rest of the day...

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According to January 2013 figures on their websites, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) has more than 32 million specimens, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington over 126 million  and the Natural History Museum over 70 million. Do we really know how many specimens we have here at the Museum? Are these figures meaningful and does it matter if we haven't estimated correctly?

 

When I consider the collections in my care I often have a chuckle about these figures and wonder if I could ever even get close to estimating the actual number of specimens in my collection. Take the jars and bottles below for example; there are literally hundreds of thousands of microfossils in there.

 

In this post I take you through a recent calculation to estimate the number of items we have in our micropalaeontology collection, and conclude that understanding how these collection sizes have been estimated is essential in deciding how to manage them.

 

P1020725_blog.jpgBottles of microfossil residues containing literally uncountable numbers of specimens.

 

It is relatively easy to make a quick and accurate size calculation for some parts of the microfossil collection. Slides are housed in standard cabinets holding 105 drawers that each hold 55 slides. The 24 standard cabinets in the Heron-Allen Microfossil Library therefore contain roughly 138,600 slides if they are full. By similar calculations, the Former Aberystwyth University Microfossil Collection contains a total of about 60,000 slides and the Former BP Microfossil Collection 300,000.

 

However, some cabinets are not completely full so we estimated percentage of expansion space and scaled down the figures accordingly. The total number of microfossil slides in the entire collection is estimated to be about 550,000.

 

But this is an estimate for the number of slides, not specimens. One slide, like the residue bottle, may contain 10s, 100s or even 1000s of specimens. Is it worth counting all of these? Probably not. You'd be there forever. Obviously when calculating the 70 million specimen figure, these vast numbers of additional specimens have not been taken into consideration otherwise the microfossil collection would have accounted for a large percentage of the total 70 million figure and perhaps even surpassed it!

 

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This slide was counted as a single item in our size estimate for the microfossil collection. Each square contains a different species and multiple specimens are present, so these counts could legitimately be added to our total number of specimens for the collection.

 

It would appear that by counting slides and not the specimens on them, we are making the microfossil collection and hence the Museum collection appear smaller than it is. So does this matter?

 

This really depends on how you use the information. I think it is fine to give estimated figures like we do on the Museum website as it gives members of the public an idea of the vast size of the collection. On the other hand, if you use these figures to make decisions on how to allocate resources to the collection, then it becomes really important to account for the way in which the data is generated.

 

It wouldn't be right for example, to decide how much funding to give a museum relative to another one based on figures like these, without knowing how they had been generated. It's probably unwise to take too much notice of website details of the relative sizes of collections at the AMNH, Smithsonian and Natural History Museum, as the data has almost certainly been gathered in a different way by each institution.

PF_70832_Various_Foraminifera_Christmas_1921.jpgAnother slide with multiple specimens that counts for a single item within the 550,000 slides in the microfossil collection. The story behind this slide can be found in my Microfossil Christmas Card post.

 

If we have 70 million specimens in the Museum, and just over half a million in the microfossil collection, which is looked after by one curator, it would, on average, suggest that we need 140 curators to manage the entire collection. The actual figure is closer to 100. Taking these figures literally would therefore suggest that I am doing well to only have to manage half a million specimens!

 

Of course it is not that simple. Data derived from other parts of the Museum collection are not comparable. A tray of 100 identical sharks teeth for example would have been counted as 100 individual specimens, whereas the squared microfossil slide shown above would have counted as an individual item. Other parts of the collection might appear to require more management resources, until they are compared on an equal basis by separating out curatorial units sometimes referred to as 'collection lots'. The tray of 100 sharks teeth in this instance would count as one collection lot.

 

It would be wrong to suggest that collection size estimates are the only factors taken into consideration when deciding how to allocate resources across a vast collection like ours. Monetary value, state of conservation, suitability for display, visitor and loan demand, educational, scientific and historical significance are also taken into account. 

 

I would say that 70 million is probably an under-estimate of the size of the Museum collection if you take into consideration the 'microfossil factor' of collections where there are simply uncountable numbers of specimens within collection lots. I don't think we will ever come to a meaningful total if we attempt to count individual specimens.

 

However, it is vital that we are consistent in how we interpret the figures derived from our own collection, especially if we use them to help make decisions on how to manage it in the future. An estimation of the number of lots rather than specimens would help towards this.

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The quick answer is anything from less than one pence to several thousands of pounds. The value of a specimen depends on a number of factors; market value, recollection value, as well as its historical and scientifical significance. Valuations are needed for insurance purposes before we loan specimens for exhibitions or to scientists. Here are some thoughts on how to put a monetary value on microfossils.

 

 

  • Why value?

 

When I first came to the Museum I was told that we don’t do valuations. I sometimes had to stand in for the enquiries officer and usually someone would phone up or come in with a specimen and ask us 'how much is it worth?' or 'would we like to buy it'? Saying that we didn't do valuations was a convenient policy to maintain a consistent approach.

 

Things have changed and now, before we loan for exhibitions or for any other reason, we do a valuation because the loanee is required to provide insurance during the loan period.

 

Occasionally colleagues visit professional dealer fairs where specimens are for sale and need to know what is a good price before buying new specimens.

 

Sometimes it is important to remind funding bodies about the value of the collections in our care. If you place a completely arbitrary figure of £20 on each specimen in our department, the contents of our building is worth an estimated £180 million!

 

 

  • Is there a market value?

 

I didn’t think there was a market for microfossils. However, a recent Google search threw up a banner on the right hand side saying ‘Buy Microfossils’. Of course I couldn’t resist following the link and found that you can buy a whole jar of sand including literally thousands of microfossils for £1.49 – significantly less than one pence per individual specimen.

 

A recent search on eBay found that you can buy examples of the microfossil Nummulites for 99p.The two examples I have given are for items that are very common. What if the specimens are less easy to replace?

 

 

  • How easy is it to find another one?

 

One way to put a valuation on a microfossil is to work out how much it would cost to collect another one. If taken literally this could place enormous values on specimens, for example - it would cost millions of pounds to drill another offshore oil well.

 

I recently had to value some slides for an exhibition at the Gasworks Gallery that had been collected from the Antarctic Ocean. The temptation was to calculate how much it would cost to mount a new trip there to find more material. However, other trips to the same area have been carried out since then so we should be able to source equivalent material. The valuation therefore took into account obtaining these residues and paying a technician to make up new slides.

 

This makes it important to record details of collecting costs when participating in fieldwork so that valuations can be carried out more easily. This should take into account time spent in the laboratory and cost of consumables like chemicals used. As a result, it would be relatively easy to value of each slide created by Tim Potter from our field trip to the Welsh Borderland.

 

Sometimes collecting sites may no longer exist because they have become overgrown or are inaccessible for other reasons. In these instances, additional value can be assigned to these specimens.

 

Some species in the £1.49 jar of microfossils may be 10 to a penny but for others there may be only one example in the jar. Time taken for an expert to look through the residue under a microscope and provide an identification should also be built into any valuation in this instance. A rare specimen in this jar may well be worth far more than £1.49 as a result.

 

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Some bottles rich in microfossils from the Ocean Bottom Residue Collection. The material cannot be collected again, has historical significance and is certainly worth a great deal more than £1.49. An individual specimen on a slide derived from one of these residues may not be worth as much as we can easily find a replacement from these bottles.

 

 

  • How does the history of a specimen affect its value?

 

Some specimens have considerable historical value as they were collected by famous scientists. As a rule of thumb, valuations are roughly doubled in these instances. Some leeway is needed here. If a 1p microfossil had been collected by Darwin, clearly it would be worth a bit more than 2p!

 

 

  • What is its scientific significance?

 

Type specimens will obviously be worth more than others. Other specimens that may not have been published can also have added value. For example, we have some specimens from boreholes drilled when they were exploring the site of the channel tunnel. These have added scientific and historical value.

 

 

Although it is sad for me to think that some of my specimens are worth less than one pence, there are many in the collection that are worth much more based on replacement value. A fine example is to consider the billions of pounds that BP must have spent acquiring the microfossil collection that we now hold.

 

If you see microfossils or microfossil collections for sale, I'd love to hear from you. This can help me to provide accurate valuations in the future.

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Me, why and what's to come

Posted by Giles Miller Jun 21, 2011

As my first post to this new blog I’ll introduce myself and explain why I’m starting it, but first here are some of the questions I plan to answer through this blog, about micropaleontology at the Museum:

 

How does micropalaeontology help dinosaur research? What can microfossils tell us about sex in the Cretaceous? How do school age children learn about micropalaeontology at the Museum? How much are microfossils worth if you can’t buy them? Who visits us? What’s a typical day for me? ..and more.

 

Also feel free to post comments to suggest topics for me to cover.

 

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Outside the Museum

 

Now a bit about myself and my motivations for this new blog:

 

I’ve been working at the Natural History Museum since 1993 where I am now the Curator of Micropalaeontology. I came to the museum straight from University where I first studied Geology as an undergraduate before specialising in micropalaeontology for my Ph.D.

 

At the Museum I initially worked as a volunteer, then I had a number of short term contracts working on a collection donated by BP. From 2000 onwards I have been on the “permanent” staff. For more details see stuffy, standard work-style web page about me.


So why the blog? I’m starting it because you might be hard-pressed to know if you visited the Museum that we have a vast microfossil collection. (However, if you look very carefully in the currently running Age of the Dinosaur exhibition you can see two small pictures of microfossils). There are so many interesting things happening behind the scenes that would go unnoticed if an effort wasn’t made to tell people about them.

 

The other reason for starting the blog is that, in this age of ‘austerity’, I believe that we should be highlighting the good news coming from the Museum so that the applications and relevance of our collections, including those from micropaleontology, are brought to people’s attention.

 

Needless to say, I shall enjoy thinking up topics for the blog while I cycle to and from home where I live with Natasha, one year old Pelham and our tiny girl bump due in October. I hope you will enjoy the blog too, and any feedback or questions will be most welcome.

 

Giles Miller

 

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Giles Miller

Giles Miller

Member since: Apr 21, 2010

This is Giles Miller's Curator of Micropalaeontology blog. I make the Museum micropalaeontology collections available to visitors from all over the world, publish articles on the collections, give public talks and occasionally make collections myself.

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