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Curator of Micropalaeontology's blog

42 Posts tagged with the palaeontology tag
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This March I taught a course on collections management at the University of Brasilia (UnB) in the capital of Brazil. The class included both undergraduate and postgraduate students studying Geology, Museology and Art, mainly at UnB. This is the third time that I have presented a similar course in Brazil with previous courses delivered at UnB and the Museu Goeldi in Belem.

 

After the course I asked the students 'what was the most important thing you learned?' To illustrate the course contents, a summary of their answers is included here. There is also a picture of some of the less friendly Brazilian inhabitants I encountered!

 

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Me with some of the class in the display area of the Museum of Geosciences at the University of Brasilia.

 

The course draws on examples from my 20 years of experience in managing microfossil collections, but the principles covered are relevant to the management of a wide range of natural history collections. Previous classes have included entomologists, botanists and zoologists. This time many of the course participants were museology undergraduate students wanting to find out about managing scientific collections.

 

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Just outside the Museum of Geosciences, University of Brasilia. This was my third visit to the university but it was the busiest and noisiest. It was Freshers Week so there were lots of noisy events including a student initiation just outside the window of the lecture theatre!

 

Rather than providing a dry summary of the course, I thought that I would precis/summarise some of the student feedback. I was also pleased to find that the students said I was understandable, delivered the course well and provided a good balance of lectures and practicals.

 

Some lessons learnt by the students:

  • Big and small museums face the same issues.
  • Curators must work hard to publicise and advocate their collections to maintain their relevance.
  • How to plan before acquiring objects for your collection.
  • Collections development and conservation plans are important.
  • Why it is important to try to register everything in your collection.
  • Thorough labelling and documentation is important because you don't know how a collection might be used in the future.
  • Data standards are important to help organise and manage a collection.
  • What the risks are for a collection and how they can be avoided.

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The class discussing collections development ideas.


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A trip to the UnB library to see the paper conservation unit.

 

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A visit to the geology collections with Dr Maria-Julia Chelini. The students affectionately call this basement corridor The Dungeon!

 

As ever I was looked after amazingly well by my hosts, including Maria-Julia Chelini at the Museum of Geosciences and her husband Ricardo Pinto. While I was not lecturing I was a guest at the beautiful country house of my old friend Dermeval do Carmo. There were also some less than friendly inhabitants that helped to make it a very interesting visit:

 

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My hosts called me to see this. I have tentatively identified it as a Brazilian wandering spider; aggressive and the world's most venomous spider according to Wikipedia. I am hoping someone will write and tell me I am wrong...

 

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The amazing view from the country house of Dr Dermeval do Carmo who invited me to give the course and looked after me so well during my visit.

 

 

Finally I would like to quote directly from feedback of one of the students Anna Maria Amorim de Oliveira who neatly summarises the benefits of providing courses like this and makes reference to the fact that it wasn't just me talking all the time. We had some really great discussions too!

'For me the whole course was very relevant, because I think that any example of the Natural History Museum could be useful in another collection and it’s always amazing to have an opportunity to know more about other countries' experience, especially at one of the most important museums in the world. But in my opinion the first exercise about how to improve our museum was exciting, because it raised a very interesting discussion!'

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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From 1 December we tweeted a picture of one of our microfossil Christmas card themed slides every day until Christmas in a successful advent series. This brought our collections to a new audience and showed that reaching a wider exposure on Twitter is reliant on retweets from major players such as the Museum's main account, @NHM_London, and good timing of tweets. Other factors included the relative aesthetic beauty of some slides compared to others and may have reflected the skill of the slidemakers concerned.

 

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Some of the Earland and Heron-Allen Microfossil Christmas Card images tweeted last December.

 

Despite this increased exposure of our collection we did not have an increased number of visitors, enquiries or loans, some of the more traditional key performance indicators. We reached an audience who would not normally be able to visit the Museum and if they could, would not see microfossil specimens on display. In this post I look at the question 'can Twitter actually benefit our collections?'

 

What is Twitter?

 

Not all my readers will be familiar with Twitter so here is a short summary of how it works. Users post online pictures and/or text of no more than 140 characters. Each user decides who to follow and can choose to read a feed consisting of all the messages posted by other users that they follow.

 

If someone posts a message that looks interesting, it can be flagged as a 'favourite' or be 'retweeted' and re-sent to all your own followers. Users can post replies to messages, engage in conversations or search for subjects being discussed under a particular hashtag (we used #microfossiladvent).

 

How did it work for us?

 

We had over 450 retweets for our pictures and gained 150 new followers to our feed. Before we started, we had about 450 followers to our twitter feed that we had been running for about a year. The increase in followers by 150 in less than a month was therefore significant, and the trend in the increase in our number of followers has reduced to a steady trickle since then.

 

Why were some tweets more successful than others?

 

It was immediately obvious that two main factors were responsible for enhanced interest in the pictures, firstly weekend tweets hardly ever got retweeted compared to the weekday ones. The second and most striking correlation was that pictures retweeted by @NHM_London had significantly more retweets than all the others. This feed is followed by nearly 500,000 people so this is hardly surprising.

 

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Three more tweeted images, all roughly the size of a thumbprint in real life. The middle one was most popular as it was retweeted 45 times and caused my phone to buzz continuously in my pocket for a couple of hours during a meeting!

 

Another issue we considered was whether some images got retweeted because they were more visually appealing than others? Half the slides tweeted were made by Arthur Earland and the other half by Edward Heron-Allen. Was one maker more adept at making pretty slides than the other and got more retweets? (For details of their relationship and more information about these slides see my post on Microfossil Christmas Cards). We found that, taking into account the issues stated above, Earland's slides were on average twice as popular as Heron-Allen's.

 

Who is our Twitter audience?

 

Usually we would make our collections available to academic enquirers who would request a visit, a loan or send an enquiry for details about the collection. Twitter has opened up a completely new audience. Some of our academic stakeholders do follow us but they are in the minority and many on our list of followers will never visit the Museum because they live too far away and even if they did, they wouldn't see any of our microfossil collection on display.

 

What has it done for our collection?

 

If you consider the traditional 'key performance indicators' (KPIs) of visitor days, numbers of specimens loaned and enquiries, then Twitter has done very little for our collection that can be measurably demonstrated. What it has done is to bring the collection out to a new audience, making it available and relevant much more widely. Has this engagement been little more than having a number of people agree that pictures of our collection are pretty? Possibly. Can this engagement actually be measured?

 

What can Twitter do for us?

 

An interesting post on the London Museums Group site by Digital Analyst Elena Villaespesa looks at quantifying the impact of Twitter on an exhibition at the Tate Modern. They have used Twitter as a communication tool to engage in conversation with visitors and research their audience. To do this they have analysed the number of comments under a certain hashtag as well as the number of visitors who participated with meaningful responses. Social media analysis software is available to help with these analyses if there is a large amount of data.

 

Another post that has caught my eye recently was by Sarah Miller who blogged on how Twitter has been used as a cultural resource outreach tool. She lists as positive outcomes for her Twitter campaign:

 

  • de-mystify what you do
  • highlight current research and events
  • open up communication
  • engage with other professionals
  • build community

 

In a previous blog I looked at the benefits of blogging about collections and showed that it has enhanced the profile of the collection in the national press, helped with its management, encouraged donations, enabled fundraising and produced research collaboration offers. Looking at our Twitter feed over the last year we can point to examples of all these 'traditional KPI related' outcomes. However, I think that with our advent Twitter campaign we have built an excellent platform for measureable future engagement. Looking at numbers of retweets we are receiving is a good sign but there is much more we can do in future by engaging in conversations with a wider audience.

 

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An example of an interaction that followed a #FossilFriday tweet of a specimen from our collection.

 

Whether you follow Twitter or not you can see all the messages posted by us on our NHM Micropalaeontology Twitter feed and learn more about how museums use social media by looking at the London Museums Group site (see a guest post by fellow NaturePlus blogger, Librarian Hellen Sharman).

 

If you are a Twitter follower then why not check out our contributions to #FossilFriday or keep up to date with micropalaeontology collections, research and teaching by following us @NHM_Micropalaeo.

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The answer is in the world’s first foraminiferal sculpture park in Zhongshan City, China. Remarkable Chinese scientist Zheng Shouyi has gained international recognition for her work on the Foraminifera of China and was responsible for encouraging the building of this sculpture park.

 

Just before Christmas, a book chapter written by myself and entitled 'A brief History of modelling of the foraminifera from d'Orbigny to Zheng Shouyi' was published in a Special Publication of the Micropalaeontological Society on 'Landmarks in Foraminiferal Micropalaeontology, History and Development'. This post highlights the remarkable work of Zheng Shouyi who has shown publically what is hidden behind the scenes of many research establishments like the Museum and touches briefly on some of the microfossil model collections we have here at the Museum.

 

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Zheng Shouyi writes 'Foraminifera are shelled marine protozoa about 1 mm in size, with a geological history of five hundred million years. There are 40,000 known fossil species ranging from Cambrian to Quaternary and some 6000 species living in the world oceans. In allusion to the role they play as excellent bioindicators of past and present marine environments used in many scientific disciplines, the foraminifera have been dubbed tiny giants of the great seas by Wayne Brock (1977).'

 

The sculptures are magnified between 750 and almost 9,000 times, with some based on species for which we hold the holotype specimens. The example above shows Pseudononion auriculum (Heron-Allen and Earland, 1930) while other sculptures represent species described by Brady from our Challenger Collection.

 

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Zheng Shouyi in front of some foraminiferal sculptures at the Sanxian Foraminiferal Sculpture Park, Zhongshan City, Guangdong Province, China (photo courtesy of Bilal Haq)

 

114 large stone sculptures of Palaeozoic to modern foraminifera have been sculpted from marble, granite and sandstone over 5 years under the guidance of Zheng Shouyi. 32 locations and establishments in China, Austria, India, South Korea and the Philippines, have copies of Zheng Shouyi’s models and sculptures.

 

The idea for a sculpture park was first suggested by Bilal Haq of the National Science Foundation in USA when he saw Zheng Shouyi’s models in her office in the Institute of Oceanology in Qingdao, China. Zheng used her local political influence to persuade authorities in her home town of Zhongshan to create “Sanxiang Foraminiferal Sculpture Park” that opened in 2009. The Smithsonian Magazine has listed the park as one of its top 10 Evotourism sites.

 

 

forampark3_blog.jpgSanxian Foraminiferal Sculpture Park, Zhongshan City, Guangdong Province, China  (photo courtesy of Bilal Haq)

 

Zheng Shouyi was born in the Philippines to Chinese parents in 1931 and moved to China following her university education. She discovered foraminifera during her graduate studies and reports 'love at first sight of the beautifully diverse tests of Foraminifera'.  She was assigned to work on the taxonomy and ecology of Recent Foraminifera of the Chinese seas, using some 1700 water and sediment samples collected from 1958-1960 by the National Comprehensive Oceanographic Investigation from sampling sites ranging from the cold temperate northernmost Bohai Sea to the South China Sea.

 

She was presented the 2003 Joseph A. Cushman Award for outstanding contributions to foraminiferal studies in recognition of a career that established her as the foremost Chinese Foraminiferal micropalaeontologist. In 2009 she was the only woman to be honoured as one of the top ten outstanding returned overseas Chinese.

 

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Palm sized foraminiferal models made by Zheng Shouyi including Pseudononion auriculum (Heron-Allen and Earland, 1930) above. We are looking to acquire a set of these for our collections (photo courtesy of Zheng Shouyi)

 

Inspired by the famous French pioneer of foraminiferal studies Alcide d’Orbigny (1802-1857) and the models he used to illustrate his work, Zheng has also created plastic palm-sized models of 250 species of foraminifera belonging to 192 genera. Zheng Shouyi's models would look amazing in our public galleries and showcase some of the Museum science and collections not normally reflected by the displays at the Museum.

 

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Some of the models of foraminifera from our collections made by d'Orbigny in 1826. Yellower models are based on living species while fossil species are modelled in white plaster of paris.

 

I am currently in negotiation with Zheng Shouyi about acquiring a 120 piece set of Zheng Shouyi's models to complement the microfossil models, like those of d'Orbigny that we have in our collections, support ongoing research into modelling foraminifera and to go on display to illustrate Museum science and collections.

 

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The front cover of 'Landmarks in Foraminiferal Micropalaeontology' features some microfossils from our collection and the final chapter illustrates many of the microfossil model sets we have behind the scenes.

 

If you would like to find out more about Zheng Shouyi, Alcide d’Orbigny or Heron-Allen, arguably the man responsible for the nucleus of the Museum’s amazing micropalaeontological collections, then the book entitled 'Landmarks in Foraminiferal Micropalaeontology, History and Development' is now available.

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Last year our 100-year-old microfossil Christmas cards were featured in The Independent newspaper and on the Science Focus website. On 30 December I am presenting a Nature Live on the microfossil Christmas cards at 12.30 and 14.30 so if you are in the area, please do pop in and say hello.

 

If you don't live near London then follow us on @NHM_Micropalaeo as we are tweeting an image of one of our beautiful Christmas microfossil slides each day of December until Christmas.

 

This year, the Museum has decided to follow a microfossil theme with its own e-Christmas card featuring the Blaschka radiolarian that is currently on display in the Treasures Gallery. To read more see my post about putting radiolarians on display.

 

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The Museum 2013 e-Christmas card

 

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The Blaschka radiolarian model of Hexacontium asteracanthion currently featured in the Treasures Gallery, otherwise affectionately known as 'the red one', is magnified about 500 times. A CT-scan image of this has also appeared on the cover of the NHM Science Review 2011-2012.

 

Finally I would like to thank all my readers for their support over the past year and wish you all a very merry Christmas and happy new year!

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On the 18th and 19th of November we welcomed over 150 micropalaeontologists who travelled from as far away as New Zealand for a conference at the Museum. Over 50 of them were given tours behind the scenes and 45 micropalaeontology posters were displayed. Thank you to fellow conference hosts and Museum scientists Tom Hill and Steve Stukins who have written this guest blog to describe the significance of these two busy days/weeks/months for micropalaeontology at the Museum:

 

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The stage set for the start of the micropalaeontology conference at the Museum

 

On Monday 18th and Tuesday 19th November 2013, the Micropalaeontology Unit hosted a conference at the Museum on behalf of The Micropalaeontological Society under the theme Micropalaeontology and the IODP: Past, Present and Future Applications. IODP stands for the International Ocean Drilling Programme and is an international marine research collaboration that explores Earth's history using ocean-going research platforms, for example the JOIDES Resolution research vessel. These platforms drill cores through the seafloor to recover the layers of sediment and rock that have accumulated at the bottom of the oceans.

 

The conference was a resounding success, with 150 delegates registering and contributing. We even had to close registration a couple of weeks beforehand as we reached capacity. The event included a number of keynote speakers who specialise in research on IOPD samples, numerous presentations and posters covering all aspects of micropalaeontology and tours behind the scenes.

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Conference delegates enjoying the poster session

 

Micropalaeontology is an integral part of IODP studies and as a result micropalaeontologists will be found on all IODP cruises. As the amount of sediment or rock extracted by coring is often relatively small, microfossils provide an ideal route through which scientists can:

  • study the age of the sediment under investigation
  • reveal the climatic conditions that prevailed at the time of sediment deposition

This is because hundreds, thousands, indeed millions of microfossils may be preserved in a layer of sediment only a few millimetres thick. As a result, micropalaeontology is at the forefront of IODP and climate change research.

 

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Keynote speaker Prof Bridget Wade from University College London

 

The international relevance and importance of micropalaeontology in ocean research was underlined by the fact that we hosted delegates from across the world including America, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Switzerland and Tunisia, to name a few. The diversity in delegates was complemented by the similar diversity in micropalaeontology projects that were discussed through both oral and poster presentations.

 

One of the research topics often discussed was how micropalaeontologists can extract detailed geochemical signals from microfossils to quantify past oceanic and climatic conditions. If such high resolution analysis is applied to an ocean core, it is then possible to reconstruct how oceanic conditions (which in turn reflect climate) have changed over millions of years. Such studies are essential if scientists are to understand how our Earth responds to climate change (whether it be due to natural or human-induced change).

 

IMG_0774_blog.jpgSteve Stukins demonstrating the John Williams Index of Palaeopalynology to a group of M.Sc. students studying Applied and Petroleum Micropalaeontology at the University of Birmingham

 

The conference also provided a unique opportunity to publicise the quality and quantity of the micropalaeontology collections housed at the Museum to a large specialist audience. Steve and Giles provided tours through the collections to over 50 micropalaeontologists including the new intake of MSc students studying micropalaeontology at Birmingham University.

 

Numerous new projects to work on our collections and potential new collaborations have resulted from these tours and from discussions we have had during the conference. From the feedback that we received, it seems that members of the Micropalaeontological Society also found the conference a great success. If you are interested to learn more details, the abstract volume for the TMS2013 talks is now available on-line.

 

The conference would not have been such a great success had it not been for the generosity of our sponsors. We would therefore like to thank The Micropalaeontological Society, The UK-IODP, The Geological Society, AASP – The Palynological Society, Neftex, Olympus, Petrostrat and Beta Analytic for their kind support during this event.

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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.

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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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This week I celebrate 20 years at the Museum, and my diary has included preparing for a researchers' night highlighting museum science, Tweeting as part of #AskaCurator day and visiting a miniature steam railway.

 

Monday

 

Most of today has been spent preparing for Science Uncovered, our EU-funded researchers' night on Friday 27 September. The doors of the Museum will remain open after usual closing time and scientists like myself will be available to talk about our science, show specimens and chat. Presentations in the Nature Live Studio will also be held and it will be possible to book tours to areas of the Museum not normally open to the public.

 

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This core from the Atlantic SW of Ireland represents the last major glacial period showing glacial dropstones from colder periods (left) and white sections composed almost entirely of warm water microfossils (right). The green packets and plastic sleeve maintain an oxygen free environment.

 

We are showing some deep sea cores taken from the Atlantic Shelf off SW Ireland through sediment that was deposited during the last glaciation. It's a great opportunity to show the key role micropalaeontology plays in quantifying and dating past climatic episodes. The core relates to periods when icebergs broke off glaciers and traversed the North Atlantic.

 

Tuesday

 

A major part of my job is dealing with enquiries about our microfossil collections and subsequently hosting visits or preparing loans. Two main collections are our most requested, the Challenger Foraminifera and the Blaschka glass models of radiolarians. Since three specimens from our Blaschka collections have been on display in our Treasures Gallery, we have had an increased number of enquiries and visitors to view the other 180 specimens that are not currently on display.

 

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Image of one of our Blaschka glass radiolarian models that was widely retweeted during #AskACurator day.

 

Today we are showing the undisplayed Blaschka collection to an artist, last week it was a glassworker from Imperial College and later this week it is a photographer hoping to create a book of images from Blaschka collections across Europe.

 

Wednesday

 

I have spent virtually the whole day on Twitter monitoring questions and providing answers as part of #AskACurator day. Fellow curators from over 500 different museums and 35 different countries have been fielding questions over Twitter causing the hashtag to trend. At one stage it was globally the second most discussed subject on Twitter.

 

I answered questions like:

 

'Do you require a masters degree to become a curator?'

'Which museum, other than your own, inspired you recently?' (the Foraminiferal Sculpture Park in China)

'Which specimens in your collection give you goosebumps when you see them?' (Blaschka glass models

'What sparked your interest to become a curator?'

'Do you need to be an obsessive to be a curator?'

'Which specimen not currently on display would you like to see being displayed?' (100 year old microfossil Christmas card).

 

Many of the questions I was able to expand on using links to blog posts, particularly the one entitled 'How to become a curator'. I started to reply to the 'what is a curator?' question but could not cram 'someone who cares for a collection by enhancing its documentation and storage, maintains access to it by facilitating loans, visits and exhibits and promotes its relevance by engaging with potential users' into 140 characters.The day certainly showed what a varied job we all have, how passionate we are and that one day is never the same as another.

 

Thursday

 

My colleague Steve has worked out that we had 65 new interactions (messages, favourites, retweets, new followers) during #AskACurator day yesterday as well as some more hits to this blog. However, I am saddened as I read a well known museums blog that says that the best way to reach a wide audience is to avoid niche subjects like micropalaeontology and links direct to my blog as an example. It starts me wondering if accumulating vast numbers of hits really show that a blog is successful?

 

A string of meetings are scheduled too; we are applying for funding for a major 3 year conservation project, the photographer arrives to discuss his project and we are finishing an application to hire a new PhD project studying traits of evolution. Microfossils are extremely useful as their fossil record is relatively complete compared to other fossil groups and collections can be made relatively easily across large geographical areas.

 

Friday

 

Earlier in the week I got to work to find two of my train mad, three year old son Pelham's Thomas the Tank Engine stickers on my socks. On Monday he is starting nursery school so today we are taking him and his younger sister Blossom to one of our favourite places, the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway in Kent. I feel that this family day is a suitable way to celebrate the 20th anniversary of my arrival at the Museum as a volunteer.

 

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On Friday 27 September the doors of the Museum will remain open after usual closing time and scientists like me will be available to talk about our science, show specimens and chat at Science Uncovered, our EU funded Researchers' Night. Presentations in the Nature Live Studio will also be held and it will be possible to book tours to areas of the Museum not normally open to the public.

 

This year Tom, Steve and I are on the Climate Change table in Waterhouse Way demonstrating some deep sea cores taken from the Atlantic Shelf SW of Ireland. The cores were drilled through sediments representing the last ice age. Information on the distribution and composition of microfossils, allied with other scientific data, shows six 'Heinrich Events' through the last glaciation. These events are thought to relate to climate related cyclic episodes when icebergs broke off glaciers and traversed the North Atlantic.

 

Science Uncovered 2012 welcomed an incredible 8,523 visitors over the night who spoke to over 350 scientists. If it proves to be as successful as last year where we presented our microfossil zoo or 2011 when I was able to use a giant plasma screen to show some of my research then it promises to be an amazing night. Do come and join us if you can.

 

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This core from the Atlantic SW of Ireland represents the last major glacial period showing glacial dropstones from colder periods (left) and white sections composed almost entirely of warm water microfossils (right). The green packets (far right) and plastic sleeve maintain an oxygen free environment and prevent mold growth on the core.

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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.'

How_Science_Works_range_chart_closeup.jpg

 

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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For obvious reasons I have always wanted to do fieldwork on Pulau Langgun, one of the islands that make up the Langkawi Islands off the far NW coast of the Malaysian Peninsula. In my last post I described the difficulties of interpreting the geology of the Malaysian Peninsula and how we were attempting to use conodont microfossils to answer some of the questions by dating the isolated rock exposures.

 

We travelled to Langkawi Island to sample conodonts from the most complete exposure of rocks in the region as it will act as a reference section for our student Atilia Bashardin and help to interpret the isolated rock exposures on the mainland. The islands are also where the conodont Panderodus langkawiensis was first described and this species was a target for our collecting.

 

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For two days our field vehicle (above) left us on the coastline early in the morning. The unfavourable tides meant that we only had three hours on the section before our boat had to come and pick us up.

 

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The early morning trip to the section was amazingly picturesque as we motored through mangroves and past imposing forested limestone crags. On the first morning we encountered dolphins as we moved out into the open water.

 

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This was our first sight of the study section from the sea. Initially it was difficult to see any rock exposures as they are hidden behind the margins of the forest that encroaches the beach. We landed at the end of the pier that you can see to the right and made our way along the coastline to the left.

 

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This is a typical limestone exposure in the area. Despite the idyllic setting, it is quite hard work to sample here. In my previous post I described how you usually need several kilogrammes of rock to find conodonts. Here the surfaces are very weathered leaving some beds standing proud. Unfortunately it is the recessed, weathered parts of the beds that we needed to collect as these will most easily dissolve in acetic acid (vinegar).

 

Microfossils can be recovered from most sedimentary rocks but it is important to choose the correct part of the rock to sample in order to maximise the yield. This often requires interpretation of the environment in which the rocks were originally deposited. It is not possible to know while sampling if a particular bed will yield conodonts and sometimes even an experienced eye can be wrong.

 

We are sampling here because these beds have previously yielded conodonts according to a paper published in the late 1960s and a recent study by a University of Birmingham undergraduate student.

 

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A scanning electron microscope image of an element from the apparatus of the conodont Panderodus langkawiensis recovered from one of the samples processed by John Lignum, former University of Birmingham undergraduate. The dotted scale bar at the bottom is 0.176mm.

 

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This is a rare blog picture of the 'Curator of Micropalaeontology' looking rather sweaty and muddy after an extended session with the geological hammer. The words on the pier behind say 'Teluk Mempelam' which means Mango Bay. Unfortunately there were no mangos to be seen.

 

In a 2005 paper published by two of my retired colleagues, Robin Cocks and Richard Fortey, the old name for the limestone here the 'Upper Setul Limestone Formation' was changed to the 'Mempelam Limestone Formation'. They studied the distribution of invertebrate fossils of this region, particularly the brachiopods and trilobites, to interpret the geological history of the region. Many of the collections that back up these findings are housed in the Museum.

 

Initial findings from the conodonts have provided more precise datings for some of the newly named geological formations suggested by Cocks and Fortey. It will also be interesting to see if the Mempelan Limestone Formation can be traced to the mainland.

 

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Not all the rocks on this coastal section were easy to swing a hammer at. Here Atilia is looking pleased with herself as she has managed to collect a nice lump of limestone from this rock exposure where previously I had failed! I had told her to give up but her persistence was rewarded.

 

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Here are two of our Mempelam Limestone Formation samples with a view of the section in the background.  These samples were too large to fit in our standard sample bags so we had to label them with indelible marker pen and carry them back to the boat by hand. The surface is pitted from weathering and some of the edges were quite sharp so they were quite difficult to carry.

 

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Dr Aaron Hunter (right) is pictured here with Universiti Teknologie PETRONAS undergradate student Vittaya Boon (left). He joined us on the trip as he is lucky enough to be doing his undergraduate project on Pulau Langgun, Langkawi. The two large cool boxes on the trolley were packed full of the limestone samples we collected.

 

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On the way home we gained a flat tyre and ended up having the valves on all four wheels replaced! Perhaps the extra loading from a heavy box of rocks caused this mishap? Emma and Aaron are seen here surveying the damage. A big thank you is due to Emma who drove us throughout the fieldtrip with an enormous amount of skill, concentration and patience.

 

The title of this blog was designed to make you want to read on and not meant to imply any slackness on our part . Hopefully over the last two blogs I have shown how conodonts can play a major role in Palaeozoic (roughly 500-200 million year old) geology by providing palaeotemperatures, palaeoenvironments and most importantly datings for rock successions. This fieldwork has also been an excellent example of the Museum developing links with international universities, providing teaching while expanding our collections from this geologically important region of the world.

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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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