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Curator of Micropalaeontology's blog

8 Posts tagged with the ostracods tag
2

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. 

4

On 13 Feb a new temporary exhibition opened here at the Museum entitled Britain: one million years of the human story. It includes some images of microfossils from our collection in the display.

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Scanning electron microscope (SEM) images of pollen grains from our collection that appear in the exhibition.

 

These and other microfossil collections housed behind the scenes help with dating the finds, reconstructing the environment, landscape and climate of these first human settlements in Britain and provide the climatic context for the recent discovery of the earliest human footprints in Britain on a Norfolk beach.

 

The AHOB Project and micropalaeontology

 

The exhibition highlights the work of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) Project and its predecessor projects. The current project, funded by Calleva, is investigating the timing and nature of human occupation of the British Isles, the technology they used, their behaviour, the environment they lived in and the fauna sharing the landscape. The microfaunas and floras mentioned here were recovered by project researcher Mark Lewis and project associate member John Whittaker.

 

Mark is a palynologist and has used the distribution of pollen grains in the sediments surrounding the human finds to interpret ancient climates and landscapes. Pollen grains that range in size from 10-100 microns can be found in sediments millions of years after the plants that produced them have died and decayed.

 

The Museum collections

 

Mark regularly uses our collection of modern pollen and spores to interpret the pollen floras that he recovers as part of the AHOB Project. We recently transferred this collection from the Botany Department and the images in the exhibition were taken from the collection of SEM prints and negatives that accompanies that collection.

 

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Part of our modern pollen collection. Slides are housed in special plastic sleeves and arranged by plant family name.

 

John Whittaker spent his entire career as a researcher here at the Museum and is a now a Scientific Associate in the Earth Sciences Department as well as being an Associate Member of the AHOB Project. In a previous blog post I highlighted his microfossil finds from three key early human sites at Boxgrove about 500,000 years old, Pakefield about 700,000 years old and Happisburgh (prounced Haze-boro) about 900,000 years old. Many of John Whittaker's microfossil slides are deposited here at the Museum.

 

Ancient landscapes

 

The pollen grain illustrations from the exhibition were chosen because of their use and importance in reconstructing ancient environments, particularly the vegetation dominating the landscapes in which the ancient humans lived. The scanning electron microscope images shown above from left to right are:

 

1. Dandelion-type e.g. Taraxacum - this herb indicates dry grassland or disturbed open ground

2. Dwarf willow, Salix herbacea - characteristic of rocky, open ground as found during cold periods

3. Montpellier maple, Acer monspessulanum - currently native to the Mediterranean and central Europe, this tree was present in Britain only during the last (Ipswichian) interglacial about 125,000 years ago

4. Bogbean, Menyanthes trifoliata - shallow water inhabitant of bogs and fens during both temperate and cold periods

5. Common valerian, Valeriana officinalis - herb indicating either dry or damp grassland as well as rough ground

 

Environments of deposition of sediments


Ostracods and Foraminifera collected by John Whittaker from Boxgrove indicate a marine raised beach and a later terrestrial deposit with freshwater ponds below chalk cliffs.

 

Boxgrove_freshwater.jpg

The saltmarsh foraminiferal species Jadammina macrescens has been recovered from Happisburgh and is consistent with interpretations that the site is situated near the mouth of the ancient large river, possibly the River Thames.

 

070314-2.jpgThe foraminiferal species Jadammina macrescens is common in saltmarsh environments.

 

The microfossils were able to show that the Slindon Sands were deposited in a wholly marine high-energy environment, whereas the Slindon Silts were deposited in a shallow intertidal environment at the margin of a regressive sea. This sort of information is vital when interpreting the archaeological finds from the site.

 

Ancient climates

 

River sediments containing flint artefacts have been found on the coast of East Anglia at Pakefield. The oldest artefacts came from the upper levels of estuarine silts where both marine and brackish ostracods and foraminifera have been recovered.

 

070314-1.JPGReconstruction of a scene at Happisburgh about 900,000 years ago by John Sibbick. (copyright AHOB/John Sibbick)

 

Other evidence from mammal, beetle and plant remains suggests a setting on the floodplain of a slow flowing river where marshy areas were common. The river sediments were deposited during a previously unrecognised warm stage (interglacial) and the presence of several warmth loving plants and animals suggests that the climate was similar to that in present day southern Europe.

 

Ammonia_batavus_Palaeoclimate_blog.jpg

 

Pollen and mammal fossils recovered from Happisburgh suggest that the climate was similar to that of southern Sweden and Norway of today with extensive conifer forest and grasslands. The floodplains were roamed by herds of mammoth and horses. Foraminifera such as the species Ammonia batavus are characteristic of warmer climates.

 

Evidence of reworking of some sediments

 

The interglacial sediments at Pakefield are overlain by a thick sequence of glacial deposits which include till and outwash sands and gravels. These contain reworked (Cretaceous and Neogene) microfossils transported from the North Sea Basin by glaciers. This is important information as fossils found in these redeposited sediments could be give false indications as to the climatic setting and dating of any finds.

 

Dating deposits

 

The dating of the deposit at Happisburgh is provided by a combination of mammoth, horse, beetle and vole finds as well as the Middle Pleistocene ostracod Scordiscia marinae. Work by John Whittaker and the AHOB team at a number of other Pleistocene sites across the SE of Britain has increased the potential of ostracods as tools for dating these sediments.

 

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The extinct freshwater ostracod Scordiscia marinae has been found at both Pakefield and Boxgrove and is

characteristic of the Middle Pleistocene period. An example of a microfossil that is useful for dating sediments.

 

Earliest footprints

 

A flint handaxe recovered from sediments recently exposed on the foreshore at Happisburgh provides part of the evidence for the earliest human occupation of Britain. Several other Palaeolithic sites have since been discovered there including sets of early human footprints on the foreshore that made the national news at the time of the opening of the exhibition.


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A Palaeogeographic map of Britain the in Early Pleistocene showing the land bridge between Europe and the position of the Thames and Bytham rivers. (Courtesy of Simon Parfitt and the AHOB Project)

 

Pinus-Picea HSB_blog.jpgPine (Pinus) and spruce (Picea) pollen recovered by Mark Lewis from the sediments that preserved the Happisburgh footprints.

 

Pollen analysis of the sediments adjoining the footprints revealed the local vegetation consisted of an open coniferous forest of pine (Pinus), spruce (Picea), with some birch (Betula). There were some wetter areas where Alder (Alnus) was growing; patches of heath and grassland were also present. These all indicate a cooler climate typical of the beginning or the end of an interglacial recognised at other Happisburgh sites.

 

Come and see the exhibition

 

I would recommend that you come and see the exhibition Britain: one million years of the human story if you can, before it closes at the end of September. If you can't then there are a wealth of interesting items on the Museum website including a video showing the recently discovered footprints.

 

Quite rightly the artefacts and larger fossil materials collected from these early human sites in Britain dominate the exhibition along with the amazing life-sized models like 'Ned the Neanderthal'. Hopefully this post has shown that there are many other undisplayed collections held behind the scenes here at the Museum that are just as important in telling us how, when and where the earliest humans lived in Britain.

0

My diary this week is illustrated by an item from behind the scenes at the Museum for each day. The week's events include:

  • an offer of an important historical collection for sale
  • work towards digitising an amazing collection of marine plankton pictures
  • hosting an old friend from Brazil
  • a recent donation appearing in a publication
  • preparation for a session on the scanning electron microscope

 

Monday

Below is an example from our collection of a slide made by the famous slide mounter Charles Elcock in 1880. Slides made by Elcock fetch as much as £350 on the open market so it was very exciting to be approached by a dealer to see if we wanted to acquire his foraminiferal collection and archive. Unfortunately the asking price was significantly more than we can afford.

Elcock_DSC3569.jpgA slide from our collections made by Charles Elcock in 1880.

 

We regularly buy specimens, and in fact some of my colleagues recently purchased specimens at the Munich Rock and Fossil Show. As far as I know, the last item bought for the micropalaeontology collection was a conodont animal back in the late 1980s.

 

At the very least this collection offer makes me realise the monetary value placed on historical items in the collection that I look after.

 

Tuesday

Below is a scanning electron microscope image of a coccolith, part of a collection of over 6,000 images taken by my former colleague Dr Jeremy Young and his collaborators.

207-23-syra. molischii_SU_blog.jpgScanning electron microscope image of the coccolith Syracosphaera molischii.


Recently graduated micropalaeontology Masters student Kelly Smith is visiting today to help us work up the data on this collection so that we can make information and images available via our website. Because their distribution is controlled largely by temperature, coccoliths in ancient sediments have been used to provide details of past climate change.

 

Coccoliths make their tiny calcareous shells by precipitating calcium carbonate from seawater so their present-day distribution may have been affected by acidification of the oceans relating to the burning of fossil fuels.

 

Wednesday

In 20 years at the Museum I have met a lot of people from all over the world, some of whom have visited regularly and subsequently become good friends. I first met Prof. Dermeval do Carmo of the University of Brasilia, Brazil, shortly after I arrived at the Museum. We have enjoyed a long collaboration that has included working together on publications, teaching collections management in Brazil, fieldwork and even holidays. He is visiting with a large, empty suitcase to to pick up the last of the scientific papers identified as duplicate by some of our volunteers.

 

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The Brazilian Cretaceous non-marine ostracod Pattersoncypris micropapillosa.

 

Today's picture is the exceptionally preserved Brazilian Cretaceous non-marine ostracod Pattersoncypris micropapillosa. Dermeval has recently reclassified the genus under the name Harbinia and is on his way to China to look at the type material for this genus. Species related to Pattersoncypris/Harbinia are used to provide information on rock ages and environments of deposition for oil exploration offshore Brazil and W Africa. For more details about their evolutionary significance, see my post on What microfossils tell us about sex in the Cretaceous.

 

Thursday

Today's scanning electron microscope image is the holotype of a new species of planktonic foraminifera Dentoglobigerina juxtabinaiensis, donated last summer and published last month in the Journal of Foraminiferal Research by University of Leeds PhD student Lyndsey Fox and her supervisor Prof. Bridget Wade.

 

The Museum collection contains many type specimens that ultimately define the concept for each species. As a result, types are some of our most requested specimens by visitors or for loan.

 

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The holotype of a new species of planktonic foraminifera, Dentoglobigerina juxtabinaiensis.


This species is Miocene in age (roughly 13.5-17 million years old) and was recovered from an International Ocean Discovery Programme core taken from the Pacific Ocean near the equator. Foraminifera, like the coccoliths mentioned earlier, are important indicators of ocean condition and climate, so this unusually well-preserved material is an important contribution to their study. Now the paper has been published I am able to register the details in our database and these will go live on our website in a couple of weeks.

 

Friday

I have a scanning electron microscope session booked next week as I have been approached by a colleague at the British Geological Survey who is preparing a chapter for a field guide on Jurassic ostracods. He would like some images of some of our ostracod type specimens from the Kimmeridge Clay Formation of Dorset.

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The ostracod Mandelstamia maculata from the Jurassic Kimmeridge Clay of Dorset.

 

Each specimen must be carefully removed from the slides that house them using a fine paint brush and glued to a small aluminium stub about 1cm in diameter. These will be coated in a fine layer of gold-palladium before being placed in the scanning electron microscope chamber next week for photography.

 

It proves very difficult to identify the relevant specimens as the original publication is pre-scanning electron microscope times and the images taken down a binocular microscope are less than clear. Publishing new, clearer illustrations of each of these type specimens will add considerable scientific value to our collections.

 

This selection of specimens has hopefully shown the historical, scientific and monetary value of our collections while showing that they are also relevant to important topical issues such as climate change and oil exploration.

3

In July my colleague Tom Hill welcomed a group of Archaeology students from the University of Birmingham to the Museum. On their tour they were shown some microfossil slides collected by retired Museum micropalaeontologist and current Museum Scientific Associate John Whittaker from various important archaeological sites showing evidence of the first humans in Britain. I've picked out three key sites where the microfossils in the collection help with dating the finds and reconstructing the environment and climate of these first human settlements in the British Isles.

 

John is an Associate Member of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) Project. The project is investigating the timing and nature of human occupation of the British Isles, the technology they used, their behaviour, the environment they lived in and the fauna sharing the landscape. The first site I have chosen was investigated well before the 2001 start of the AHOB Project. 

 

1. Boxgrove about 500,000 years ago

 

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This reconstruction is based on evidence from archaeological excavations at Boxgrove, funded by English Heritage, directed by Dr Mark Roberts of University College, London. (Image by Peter Dunn, English Heritage Graphics Team, copyright English Heritage and reproduced with permission).

 

In 1993 a Homo heidelbergensis shin bone was discovered during archaeological excavations at a sand and gravel quarry at Boxgrove, Sussex. At the time this represented the earliest evidence of human occupation in Britain. Well preserved hand axes and butchered animal bones with flint cut marks as well as two human teeth were also discovered at the site.

 

Ostracods and Foraminifera collected by John Whittaker from Boxgrove indicate a marine raised beach and a later terrestrial deposit with freshwater ponds below chalk cliffs. The microfossils were able to show that the Slindon Sand was deposited in a wholly marine high-energy environment, whereas the Slindon Silt was deposited in a shallow intertidal environment at the margin of a regressive sea (see image above). This sort of information is vital when interpreting the archaeological finds from the site.

 

Boxgrove_freshwater.jpg

 

2. Pakefield about 750,000 years ago

 

It has long been suspected that the Cromer Forest Bed exposed on the coast of East Anglia could contain evidence of human activity. In 2000, coastal erosion revealed river sediments containing flint artefacts. In 2000, these stone tools provided the earliest evidence for people in Europe living to the north of the Alps and the findings were published in the journal Nature in 2005.

 

The oldest artefacts from Pakefield came from the upper levels of estuarine silts where both marine and brackish ostracods and foraminifera have been recovered. Other evidence from mammal, beetle and plant remains suggests a setting on the floodplain of a slow flowing river where marshy areas were common.

 

The river sediments were deposited during a previously unrecognised warm stage (interglacial) and the presence of several warm loving plants and animals suggests that the climate was similar to that in present day southern Europe.

 

The interglacial sediments are overlain by a thick sequence of glacial deposits which include till and outwash sands and gravels. These contain reworked (Cretaceous and Neogene) microfossils transported from the North Sea Basin by glaciers.

 

This is important information as fossils found in these redeposited sediments could be give false indications as to the climatic setting and dating of the any finds.

 

Scordiscia_marinae.jpg

The extinct freshwater ostracod Scordiscia marinae has been found at both Pakefield and Boxgrove and is characteristic of the Middle Pleistocene period.

 

3. Happisburgh about 840,000-950,000 years ago

 

Sibbick-HappisburghReconstruction.jpg

 

Reconstruction of the site at Happisburgh by John Sibbick. (copyright AHOB/John Sibbick)

 

Shortly after the Pakefield discoveries, Mike Chambers was out walking his dog at on the beach at Happisburgh (prounced Haze-boro) and discovered a flint handaxe in sediments recently exposed on the foreshore. This remarkable discovery sparked a major programme of geological and archaeological work at the site that has discovered at least four other Palaeolithic sites at Happisburgh.

 

One of the sites is even older than Pakefield and pushes the timing of the occupation of Britain back by at least 100,000 years. The key geological formation has since been named the Hill House after the local pub!

 

Bytham_Thames.jpg

 

A Palaeogeographic map of Britain the in Early Pleistocene (about showing the land bridge between Europe and the position of the Thames and Bytham rivers. (Courtesy of Simon Parfitt and the AHOB Project).

 

At this time there was a land bridge between Britain and France that would have aided migration of humans from continental Europe. The English Channel was first cut about 450,000 years ago following a major flood from a glacially impounded lake in the position of the present day southern North Sea. The Thames did not follow its current course but flowed further north through Norfolk converging with the ancient river Bytham.

 

The saltmarsh foraminiferal species Jadammina macrescens has been recovered from Happisburgh and is consistent with interpretations that the site is situated near the mouth of the ancient large river, possibly the River Thames.

 

Jadammina_macrescens_SIFig12.JPG

 

The foraminiferal species Jadammina macrescens is common in saltmarsh environments.

 

Pollen and mammal fossils suggest that the climate was similar to that of southern Sweden and Norway of today with extensive conifer forest and grasslands. The floodplains were roamed by herds of mammoth and horses. Foraminifera like the species Ammonia batavus are particularly useful climatic indicators.

 

Ammonia_batavus_Palaeoclimate.jpg

 

The foraminiferal species Ammonia batavus is characteristic of warmer climates.

 

The dating of the deposit is provided by a combination of mammoth, horse, beetle and vole finds as well as the Middle Pleistocene ostracod Scordiscia marinae. Work by John Whittaker and the AHOB team at a number of other Pleistocene sites across the SE of Britain has increased the potential of ostracods as tools for dating these sediments.

 

The microfossil collections from these important archaeological sites deposited here at the Museum are an important example of collections that support the findings of a high-profile project that is regularly in the national news.

2

I have lost track of the number of times I have explained to people what I do and they have replied that they had no idea that this type of work was going on behind the scenes at the Natural History Museum. On Friday 23rd September it was our chance to take centre stage in the galleries in Science Uncovered, the largest 'show and tell' the Museum has ever put on.

 

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Using a large plasma screen to bring tiny fossils to life (Photo by Kevin Webb and copyright Natural History Museum)

 

Explaining about microfossils can be a difficult task considering their size and relative unpopularity compared to the dinosaurs and early human fossils that were being displayed on the tables less than 10 metres away. I have previously taken part in science communication events like these and found that microscopes have been a big draw to get the crowds in. This time at Science Uncovered, I found that a large plasma screen showing some eye catching videos and images were more a effective communication tool than ever before. Members of the public were drawn towards the screen to see what I had to say about my subject.

 

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Showing a video of a living ostracod on the giant plasma screen (Photo by Kevin Webb and copyright Natural History Museum)

 

I won't say too much at the moment about what I was talking about other than I was introducing some recent studies on some of our most important ostracod collections. I intend to make that research project the subject of a future blog entitled 'What microfossils tell us about sex in the Cretaceous'.

 

The important theme to this evening was to show the relevance of our collections and research to every day life and showcase to members of the public our science. The ostracods I showed are vital to exploration offshore Brazil and West Africa in areas where oil is being found. Knowledge of the reproductive strategies of ostracods is also vital to interpreting, not just the modern day distribution of ostracods but also the fossil record. Ostracods can give detailed information about past environments (see the Ockley dinosaur blog) and are increasingly being used to interpret past climates.

 

 

A video of the living ostracod Eucypris virens. This is related to the fossil examples that I was showing. (Video courtesy of Dave Horne, Queen Mary College, University of London)

 

It is quite tiring speaking about your subject non-stop for any period of time and my voice was quite dry after an hour. I remember taking part in a similar public event entitled the 'Fossil Road Show' back in the late 1990s and losing my voice completely by the end of the day. Fortunately this time we were using a rota system that changed the staff and specimens on the Palaeontology Station every hour. After my hour was finished I was quite disappointed to be stopping and wished that I could have carried on for longer.

 

Another minor disappointment was that I did not see other aspects of the event and get the chance to fully see what my colleagues from around the museum had to say.

 

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Some scale models of the Cretaceous ostracod Harbinia micropapillosa and my badge.

 

I do have one momento from the event; a badge with 'I'm a scientist.... talk to me'. Guardian journalist Camila Rus joked that some Museum staff had intended to wear their badges on their commute to and from work. I'm not sure this would work considering the almost complete lack of action of fellow passengers when my Natasha wore her 'Please give up your seat, I'm pregnant' badge. What I do know is that large plasma screen was an enormous help to me at 'Science Uncovered' and made my job of explaining my science much easier.

0

A couple of weeks ago we processed a loan to Prof. Dil Joseph and his team at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada. They have developed a new method for imaging microfossils under a light microscope called Virtual Reflected Light Microscopy (VRLM). As well as being a novel use for some of our historical residue collections, this potentially provides an interactive method for viewing our collections in 3-D on-line and could greatly aid future users of our collections.

 

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Cindy Wong, Adam Harrison and Dr Dileepan Joseph of the University of Alberta (photo courtesy of Ryan Heise, Communications Officer, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Alberta)

 

VLRM involves photographing microfossils under many different light conditions and from many different angles so that 3-D images can be built up. The team has also developed software to deliver these images to the web via an interactive interface that allows users to digitally manipulate specimens. A demo of VLRM can be found on-line and 3-D images can be obtained with the help of red-cyan glasses.

 

In normal circumstances we would make 2 dimensional images of specimens with either a light microscope or with a scanning electron microscope. These would be sent to enquirers about the collections. If possible, scientists would prefer to visit the Museum as they would normally need to manipulate specimens to see features that would not always be visible from 2 dimensional images. VLRM potentially recreates that visitor interaction with the specimens remotely on-line.

 

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Part of the ocean bottom microfossil residue collection housed in the Department of Palaeontology.

 

The team have borrowed some of our most significant microfossil residues to test their system and develop future applications. These residues come mainly from the H.M.S. Challenger Collection. The Challenger Expedition of 1872-1876 was the first oceanographic voyage. Prior to this, the ocean bottom was completely unexplored so these residues represent a 'first ever glimpse' of the bottom of the worlds oceans.

 

All of the organisms discovered during this first dredging of the ocean bottoms, including the microfossils, were described resulting in many new species being found. The foraminiferal type specimens of many of these species are housed here in the Museum and are frequently consulted by visitors. When a new species is described, a type specimen must be designated and deposited in a recognised museum so that future workers can consult them if neccessary.

 

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A type slide from the Challenger Foraminifera Collection. It is 7.5cm long.

 

As the research is being done in North America, it was topical that we also loaned a residue from the Second Albatross Cruise of 1882. The Albatross was reportedly one of the the first vessels built for oceanographic studies and made its maiden voyage from Washington.

 

Dil Joseph's team in Edmonton have already published on computer aided recognition of foraminifera. It will be very interesting to see how historically significant materials from our collections play a part in future research on this subject. Work on Virtual Reflected Light Microscopy certainly looks to revolutionise how data on microfossil collections will be shared and how we make our collections available in the future.

 

Special thanks to Lil Stevens who processed this loan. She has now joined the full time curatorial staff and is helping out with micropalaeontology curation.

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Two upcoming events will enable you to see the original specimens and the scale models of the ostracod that showed evidence of sexual reproduction through the use of giant sperm 140 million years ago.

 

At Science Uncovered on 23 September (see flyer below for details), I'll be on the Palaeontology table from 16.00-17.00. And, a few days before, at 14.30 on 19 September I'll also be taking part in the 'Microscopic sex' talk for Nature Live in the Attenborough Studio in the Darwin Centre.

 

I hope to see you at one or the other (or both!).

 

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Working while I sleep

Posted by Giles Miller Jul 6, 2011

Adding details about our specimens to the Museum electronic database and publishing the details on the internet is an important way for us to make sure that our specimens are used to their best potential. This takes up about 20% of my job allocation. As a result I was very happy to leave the office last night and arrive in the next day to find that 5,634 micropalaeontology records had been added to the collections database overnight while I slept.

 

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Details of the overnight import of records to the Museum database with Pelham Miller on the desktop background.

 

 

If this can be done overnight, is there any need to have a curator to do this job?

 

 

If I'm totally honest, 99% of this work didn't happen overnight. Firstly, someone sat and typed what they saw in our registers as part of the "Rapid Data Project" (thank you SJ). Because the data was recorded often in short hand we had to add information to the records, particularly about where the specimens were published and who donated/collected them (thank you Lyndsey).

 

 

Finally we had to check the records to make sure they were accurate. Part of this was done by using lists of microfossil names already published (thank you Micropalaeontology Press). Checking records is not exactly the most stimulating part of my job. However, I do find that this progresses much faster while I listen to Test Match Special!

 

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An example of a collections register including annotations when our specimens have been published in scientific articles.

 

 

The eagle eyed of you may have spotted on the first image that there were over 2,000 errors in the overnight import. This looks serious but they are easy to correct. To maintain data accuracy and consistency across the Museum, the database system (KE Emu) only allows certain terms to be used for some fields. I used "Purchased" instead of "Purchase" and this caused about a thousand of them. The rest of the errors result from incorrect usage of some country names in the Middle East ...

 

 

In the last year we have added about 35,000 micropalaeontological records. I am also managing projects to create records with other Palaeontology Curators. This is on-going and we hope to reach 100,000 records in the next couple of years.

 

 

OK. So you now know that this didn’t really happen overnight while I slept. Even so, it does give a good example of what can be achieved with a little bit of teamwork. If you consider that each curator in our department has an annual target of about 2,000 specimens to add to our on-line database, this project has enormous potential to showcase our collections quickly, easily and accurately.



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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