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Curator of Micropalaeontology's blog

2 Posts tagged with the radiolaria tag
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The end of March and start of April at the Museum marks the end of our reporting year so I thought I'd report on the news from the micropalaeontology collections over the past year. This includes details of national press coverage, exhibitions, loans, acquisitions, disposals, visitors, university teaching, projects by artists and answers to big questions about past climates.

 

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Our most iconic specimen as advertising for the Treasures Gallery as 'hair to a Neanderthal with Darwin's beard'!

 

Exhibitions

 

Microfossils are not the easiest display subjects. However, this year has seen several microfossil themed displays, both in the Museum and galleries elsewhere, that feature or have been inspired by our collections.

 

The highlight of the year has to be the display of one of our Blaschka glass models of radiolarians in the new Treasures Exhibition in the main hall of the Museum. The radiolarian scale model, multiplied by about 500 times, was a centrepiece of the display and featured heavily in the advertising for the gallery. The gallery has a public voting panel at the end and last time I looked, the Blaschka items were second favourite behind Guy the Gorilla!

 

The radiolarian model received a large amount of press coverage as part of the advertising of the gallery, including an image in the colour supplement of the Financial Times. I am told that a giant image of the model was projected onto the wall behind the Duchess of Cambridge as she opened the exhibition. A Blaschka video also featured on the Museum's YouTube channel including some additional radiolarian models that are yet to be put on display.

 

The year started with the the exhibition at the Gasworks Gallery of Irene Kopelman's images inspired by our collection of Antarctic Ocean radiolarians and ended with Gemma Anderson's exhibition of art at the Ebb and Flow Gallery, inspired partly by the loan of some radiolarian specimens from our collections.

 

Images of coccolithophores from our archives have been on display at the British Museum. Closer to home, Tom, Steve and I used a portable scanning electron microscope to display our microfossil zoo during the Science Uncovered public event in the galleries at the Museum in September.

 

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Microfossil Christmas cards featured in the national media.

 

Other national press coverage

 

Our collections of Foraminifera hit the national press at Christmas when the story behind the microfossil Christmas cards was published by the Independent and a gallery of images from the collection were included on the BBC Focus web site.

 

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The cabinet of foraminiferal slides loaned to the University of Birmingham for teaching on the Applied and Petroleum Micropalaeontology course.

 

Loans to support micropalaeontology teaching

 

The main loan of the year was to the University of Birmingham who borrowed 730 slides and over 2,500 countable specimens for use in the teaching of the new MSc course in Applied and Petroleum Micropalaeontology. Another loan of 180 slides from the former British Petroleum Collection was sent to support a student project on the same course that will be co-supervised by my colleague Steve Stukins.

 

Other loans have supported undergraduate projects at the University of Manchester and a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. A total of 500 images of our specimens or surrogate loans have also been sent out this year.

 

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Tom Hill transporting part of the Modern Pollen and Spores collection past the giant sequoia in the main hall.

 

Collection enhancements and disposals

 

In January we transferred over 30,000 slides of modern pollen and spores from the former Botany Department. A good start has been made with rehousing some of the slides that are currently stored in less than adequate conditions. Other major donations have included 5 slide cabinets of Recent Foraminifera donated by Prof Jo Haynes to accompany the former Aberystwyth University Micropalaeontology Collection that arrived in 2000.

 

Space for these new collections was created by donating a large number of duplicate foraminiferal reprints to the Gryzbowski Library in Poland and a large collection of duplicate ostracod reprints to the University of Brasilia in Brazil.

 

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Some acritarch images taken by Associate Tim Potter that were released on-line database this year.

 

Details of our collections on-line

 

About 8,900 microfossil specimen records were added to the museum on-line database this year and completed the transfer of records from our paper fossil foraminiferal registers. Details of about 90,000 microfossil slides are now available on-line covering most of our type and figured collection of fossil foraminifera.

 

Records from the Richard Dingle Collection of 90,000 ostracods on 2,500 slides were also added to the database this year and a paper detailing the collection published in the Journal of Micropalaeontology. The collection underpins Richard's work on ostracods that has helped illuminate some major questions in evolution, detailed the movements of ancient continents and shown patterns of migration of ostracods across oceans.

 

1,776 microfossil images from our collection have been posted on-line this year. Images of acritarchs from Tim Potter's collection have been added (see above). Images and videos relating to the Duxbury collection of Cretaceous Dinoflagellates are now available with the specimen details on-line.

 

A cabinet of former staff member Dr Ray Bate's correspondence relating to the ostracod collection has been transferred to the Museum archive and details of these documents added to the on-line archive search.

 

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Temperature ranges of non marine ostracod species identified by Horton et al. (1992) from a Hoxnian site about 400,000 years old at Woodston, Peterborough. The mutual temperature range for the month of January is calculated and shows slightly lower mean temperatures than the present day (courtesy of Dr David Horne). New records of non-marine ostracod occurrences from our collections have been added to Dr Horne's database this year.

 

Visitors

 

We hosted in excess of 200 scientific visitors again this year and welcomed student groups from the University of Birmingham, Imperial College, King's College and the British Science Academy. Academic visitors from universities continue to make up the majority of our visitor numbers with a visit from a post doctoral student from Turkey a highlight. She used the distribution of ostracod species in our collections to add to a database which helps estimate past climatic conditions.

 

John_Williams1.jpg John Williams with part of the Index of Palaeopalynology.

 

Publications on our collections

 

This is a harder question to answer as we usually rely heavily on our collection users to provide details of their publications that cite or figure our collections. I know of at least three major mongraphs in preparation/press and this year a book proposal submitted by Micropalaeontology staff and associates on the Museum Iraq Petroleum Microfossil Collection was accepted by Wiley Blackwell.

 

A short article on the John Williams Index of Palaeopalynology was also published in the journal Palynology and we continue to welcome palynologists to use the index for their research.

 

Thanks

 

I hope this does not sound like I am soley responsible for carrying out all of these tasks relating to visits, loans, donations, collections moves and exhibitions. It has very much been a team effort with so many collaborators that is would be impossible to list them all here. I would particularly like to thank Museum Scientists Tom Hill, Steve Stukins and our volunteers Daryl, Johanna, Freya, Heather and Stephanie without whose support this extremely successful year for the collections would not have been possible.

 

And finally ...

 

Keep in touch with what we're doing in Micropalaeontology with our @NHM_Micropalaeo Twitter feed that we also launched this year, which is where you'll hear about new positions in the labs and about our recent activities like this podcast from Palaeocast in which I featured.

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What is micropalaeontology?

Posted by Giles Miller Jun 21, 2011

The answer to this question is the straightforward part of this post: palaeontology is the study of fossils and micropalaeontolgy is the study of microfossils. Alas, that’s the easy bit done… what then, are microfossils?

 

I’ll assume that we all know what a fossil is (if not, I recommend starting here) so a microfossil must be a small fossil, right? Actually, this is a harder question to answer than you might think so here are some thoughts on how large a microfossil is, how old they are and how we manage them at the Museum.


Size

There is no agreed size below which a fossil stops being a large fossil and starts becoming a microfossil. Some people arbitrarily say that if you need to use a microscope to view a fossil then you are looking at a microfossil. However, some fossils we consider microfossils measure more than a couple of centimetres in diameter. The rocks that were used to construct the pyramids in Egypt contain microfossils that can be as large as a ten pence piece!


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Photo of Egyptian pyramid courtesy of Bobbie Molloy.


This size delimiting definition also gets slightly difficult to use when you are studying the microscopic parts of a larger organism, for example the fossilised scales of a fish or a minute example of something that is usually larger like a gastropod (e.g. a snail). Most people studying these topics would consider themselves microvertebrate workers or gastropod workers and not micropalaeontologists. However, many micropalaeontologists, like me also study microscopic remains of larger organisms like fish that they find during laboratory preparations for other microscopic remains.


Biological classification

Some people try to restrict micropalaeontology to particular biological groups that are commonly considered microfossils. This can also be open to personal opinion, for example, palynologists study microscopic organic remains like spores, pollen and oceanic plankton – all microscopic in size – but some of them would consider themselves palynologists rather than micropalaeontologists. The Micropalaeontological Society defines its specialist groups to reflect biological classifications of organisms commonly accepted as microfossil groups.


Age

As with size, there is no agreed age beyond which something stops being recently dead and becomes a fossil. With specimens in this narrow window of age (ie 0-10,000 years old) it is virtually impossible to tell how old a microfossil specimen is without carrying out some sort of destructive chemical analysis on it.


Our collections

At the Museum, we mainly follow the Micropalaeontological Society's definition of a microfossil and in the Palaeontology Department we have collections of Foraminifera, Ostracoda, conodonts, Radiolaria, nannofossils and various palynological groups such as the dinoflagellates and spores. In future posts I will introduce each of these microfossil groups as I highlight projects that are currently happening here at the Museum.


My job is to manage all of these collections which number over 750,000 objects. It would be impossible to count the exact number of specimens because some slides and residues contain hundreds of thousands of specimens.


The lack of clarity over what age makes a microfossil causes problems sometimes with deciding where to store specimens in the Museum collections. In the Palaeontology Department we have all the extant (modern) Foraminifera as well as the fossil specimens, so no problem there. However, ostracods are split between our department and the Zoology Department, with us holding the fossils and Zoology the recent (extant) forms. In practise it is very difficult to draw the line between fossil and recent and we certainly have some ostracods that could be in the Zoology Department and probably vice versa.


The majority of the microfossil collections are Foraminifera, which are unicellular animals with a foramen (i.e. an opening, sometimes multiple) that form small shells of calcium carbonate, silica or organic materials. Examples of Foraminifera are shown below, where the field of view of the slide from the Heron-Allen Collection is about 2cm.


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The Heron-Allen Collection

 

I mentioned that some micropalaeontologists like me also work on microscopic fragments of fish (microvertebrates). At the Museum these are kept with the fish collections so they do not come under my ‘jurisdiction’. However, I still study them and some of my most important discoveries have been on this subject as you will find out in the next post to the blog.



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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