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


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


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


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Curators at the Museum receive donations or offers of donations of new specimens on a regular basis. An interesting rock made almost entirely of microfossils arrived from Brazil a couple of weeks ago. We have not officially accepted this donation yet, but this is an interesting acquisition story about an interesting specimen.



The rock specimen offered for us as a donation


The donor Prof. Dr. José Luiz Lorenz Silva offered the specimen to us following his publication on a rock called a spongillite which was found at Très Logoas in the State of Matto Grosso do Sul, Brazil. This rock was deposited in the Late Pleistocene period about 37,000 years ago in a freshwater pond. The microfossils contained suggest that the climatic conditions were colder at that time and that it was deposited in a slightly acidic peat bog pond.


Following the donation, my Erasmus student Angelo Mossoni and I placed a fragment of the rock under the scanning electron microscope to see what it contained. The rock is very light as it is composed almost completely of the siliceous remains of sponges and diatoms. Diatoms are algae that secrete a characteristic shell wall or frustrule of silica. They can be found in the fossil record as far back as the Jurassic period and are commonly used in the present day as indicators of water quality.



A scanning electron microscope image of part of the rock showing the remains of thousands of diatoms


At the start I mentioned that we had not officially acquired this specimen. All future donations are carefully scrutinised so that we are sure that the material has been donated to us without contravening laws of the country that it was collected from. Brazilian law states that specimens cannot be collected from their country and sent abroad unless relevant agreements exist between the institutions in Brazil and the institutions accepting the donations.


To account for this, we have registered the specimen as "Object Entry". This means that we are not certain just yet if we have the correct paperwork and agreements in place to accept it and acknowledge that we do not officially hold title to its ownership. Specimens sent to us for identification or specimens belonging to other institutions but being studied here are commonly registered here as "Object Entry" until they are returned to their owners.



Some more diatoms under the scanning electron microscope. The scale on the picture is 10 microns which is 0.001 of a millimetre.


As you can see from the scanning electron microscope images above, it is certainly a very interesting rock. Museum policy on acquisition states that we will seek to acquire specimens if one of the following is satisfied: it helps to bridge or fill gaps in collections, it fulfills a research need, it complements existing specimens in our collection, it has potential for public education or display, it is scientifically or historically significant.


The spongillite certainly covers several of these criteria and may well be of interest to the research of scientists in the Botany Department studying diatoms. My colleague Martha Richter is currently in Brazil and will be checking if the documentation we have is acceptable. Until we are sure, this very interesting rock specimen won't officially be making its way into our collections just yet.


Microfossils of the day

Posted by Giles Miller Aug 12, 2011

To celebrate the United Nation's Year of Biodiversity last year, the Museum published details of a different species every day on its web site under the title Species of the Day. These records were delivered last week to another web site The Encyclopedia of Life. Each species was chosen and written about by a museum scientist so this week's blog is to point you in the direction of the microfossils which were chosen for their importance in studies on climate change, ocean acidification, north sea oil exploration and the fossil record of sexual reproduction. Follow the links below to find out more about each species and the groups to which they belong.



Emiliania huxleyi


Emiliania huxleyi is a coccolithophore which is a unicellular plant that lives in the upper layers of the ocean and forms tiny calcareous coccolith plates like the ones you can see above. These are artificially coloured images from a scanning electron microscope. This very high powered microscope is needed as they are only tens of microns in size and as a result are usually referred to as nannofossils. The ones above are only slightly larger than a thousanth of a millimetre in size. If you were to dip a bucket in the ocean you could find literally tens of thousands of these types of cells. In early summer, E. huxleyi forms enormous blooms across the northwest European shelf that can be seen from space. Coccoliths are susceptible to changes in climate and ocean acidification. This, combined with an excellent fossil record makes them an essential group in the study of recent changes to our oceans and environment.



Harbinia micropapillosa


Harbinia micropapillosa is an ostracod, a microscopic crustacean with two calcareous shells. Ostracods can be found in virtually any current aquatic environment and very rarely on land in damp habitats near to water. They have an extensive fossil record because their two shells preserve well as fossils but usually the soft body parts decay soon after death. H. micropapillosa is exceptional because the soft body parts have been preserved in a rock formation that is roughly 140 million years ago. Recent analysis using new techniques has shown the reproductive organs of this ancient organism are identical to those of present day ostracods and suggest that they reproduced using giant sperm back in the Cretaceous period. If you can't wait to find our more about this interesting fossil then follow the link above. However, I will be expanding the story of these important specimens in our collections as the subject of a future blog.



Nannoceratopsis gracilis


Nannoceratopsis gracilis is a dinoflagellate cyst from the Jurassic period about 145-200 million years ago. Dinoflagellates are marine photosynthetic algae that play an important role at the base of the food chain and the carbon cycle. At stages throughout their life cycle they form resistant organic cysts that can be found in the fossil record by dissolving suitable rocks in nasty acids like hydroflouric acid. Nannoceratopsis is one of the earliest forms of dinoflagellate cyst so studies of this genus can tell us a lot about the early evolution of dinoflagellates. The shape is also very distinctive and easily recognisable. N. gracilis can be found in rocks 168-185 million years old and can therefore be used, on its own or in association with other fossils, to accurately date rocks.


Nummulites gizehensis


I mentioned Nummulites gizehensis is a member of the Foraminifera in my second blog and showed a picture of the pyramids at Gizeh that are constructed from rocks that contain this species. The genus Nummulites is a member of a group called the "Larger Foraminifera" that build multichambered shells up to 15cm in size despite being a single celled amoeba. The chambers like the ones shown above can only be seen by breaking the shells apart or making specially oriented thin sections of the rocks they are found in. Sometimes symbiotic green algae also lived in the chambers, providing products of photosynthesis to the amoebe while using the shell as protection. N. gizehensis lived during the Middle Eocene epoch about 37-48 million years ago, in shallow marine conditions and can be used as a marker to show the age of rocks that contain them, particularly in the oil region of the Middle East.


Finally a big thank you to my former colleagues Jeremy, Susanne and Clive who originally wrote about three of these beautiful microfossil species of the day.


The Erasmus Programme is European Union funded and enables higher education students in 31 European countries to study for part of their degree in another country. This is exactly what Italian Geology student Angelo Mossoni is doing here at the Museum this summer as part of his masters degree at Cagliari University.



Angelo working in the Micropalaeontology Laboratory


Angelo contacted me in early 2011 asking if I had any projects that I needed doing on conodont microfossils. Conodonts are the teeth of an extinct worm-like organism that are used widely for investigating the age of rocks between 200-500 million years old. This sort of information is very useful for oil or mineral exploration companies as well as for revealing the geological history of rock formations.


Finding conodonts can be a long process. The first stage is to dissolve in vinegar, limestones or other rocks that were deposited in shallow to deep seas. This produces large residues of microscopic fragments less than a millimetre in size that need to be examined under a microscope. I had already dissolved tens of kilogrammes of limestones from Oman so Angelo's first task was to help examine the residues.


Angelo has previous experience of this type of work but has not used separating techniques to reduce the size of the residue needing to be examined. He was introduced to a method using a heavy liquid sodium polytungstate that concentrates the heavier fractions of the residues that include the conodont microfossils. This means that less time is needed to examine the results under a microscope, a process that can sometimes take weeks or even months.



Adding residues to the heavy liquid sodium polytungstate


The heavy fraction then needs to be examined under the microscope and a fine paint brush used to transfer the conodonts into a separate cavity slide for further examination. Angelo and I then worked together to choose which specimens should be illustrated. Angelo was then taught to use the Axiocam Imaging System to take good publication quality colour images of the best specimens that he found (see below).


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One of the conodont specimens found by Angelo. It is just over a millimetre in length.


The very best specimens were also illustrated using a scanning electron microscope so that the conodonts we found could be classified and used to provide a geological age for the sample. Precise dating of rocks from Oman is potentially of interest to oil companies in this region. Angelo found many other interesting fragments of fish and microfossils that will be published along with the conodonts in the future.



Studying some microscopic fish remains on the scanning electron microscope


Part of the strategic plan for the Museum is to 'provide a unique and personalised experience for learners, through engagement with real science, scientists and specimens'. We have certainly done this by teaching Angelo new techniques in the study of conodonts while he helps with a research project that has significantly enhanced our collections. More importantly we have enabled Angelo to achieve some of the goals of the Erasmus Programme by experiencing study in a laboratory away from is own country and greatly improving his English.


Angelo leaves at the end of August but that will not be the end of his association with the Museum. During his stay he has found many interesting new specimens that we will eventually publish together. Hopefully this will also be a great help to him in his future career as a micropalaeontologist. He has certainly done a large amount of very useful work during his time here for which I am very grateful.


In Richard Hodgkinson's case you would be right to say that he plays bowls more often after retiring in the late 1990s from his position as the Collections Manager of the Micropalaeontology Collections. Richard does far more than this of course and one day a week he helps to curate the micropalaeontology collections here at the Museum as a Scientific Associate in the Department of Palaeontology.




Richard's entire career was spent curating the micropalaeontology collections here and his handwriting can be recognised in many of the registers where details about our specimens are recorded. Richard's knowledge of the collections at the Museum is second to none so he is currently helping us by adding information about the people who donated, published and collected the specimens we hold.


This is very important because the Museum recently implemented a computerised database that includes data from all departments (Botany, Entomology, Mineralogy, Palaeontology, Zoology). When the data was all added to a single database there were many problems because previously there had been a lot of duplication of effort. For example my name appeared as "C. G. Miller, C. Giles Miller, Dr G. Miller, Mr C. Giles Miller" and many other variants when we came to look at the data when it was all amalgamated from various sources.


Richard's work has been to investigate the history of some of the people associated with the Foraminiferal Collections by adding dates of birth/death, full names, information about where they worked and any other information that Richard can add from his vast knowledge and experience. Our collection holds a lot of significant historical information. An example of the type of related historical information hidden in our collections can be found in this interesting article that was published in the Daily Telegraph this week about one of our most famous donors Charles Davies Sherborn. Sherborn described himself as a "magpie with a card index mind" and once built a mock volcano in his back garden!




Fortesque William Millett (1833-1915) whose microfossil collections are now at the Natural History Museum was the subject of a scientific article by Richard Hodgkinson.


You would imagine that this only helps me as Micropalaeontology Curator but you would be wrong there. Many of the people associated with our foraminiferal collections, like Sherborn, also collected other fossil groups or other natural historical items like mineralogical, botanical, zoological or entomological specimens. The details that Richard has added to records are shared by the whole Museum so it will be easier for curators in all parts of the Museum to identify which are the correct records in the database to use. It will also help with identifying which records to keep when we begin to start the difficult process of amalgamating some of the duplicated records.


Each year, retired members of staff make very valuable contributions to the running of the science departments behind the scenes at the Museum. Richard Hodgkinson is no exception and his help is very gratefully received.


A risky business

Posted by Giles Miller Jul 19, 2011

Last week I attended a two day course on assessing and Managing Risks to Natural History Collections given by Rob Waller of Protect Heritage Corp and Canadian Museum of Nature. So are our collections under threat? The answer to this is yes. Lots of factors can threaten a collection's long term security: fire, water, theft/vandalism, pests, contaminants/pollution, light/UV radiation, incorrect temperature and incorrect humidity. There are even risks that information about the specimens might be lost and every time they are moved or handled there is a risk of loss or breakage. All risks to collections can be categorised under one or more of the 10 Agents of Deterioration.



A class exercise to identify specific risks to collections (top image courtesy of Rob Waller).


First we learnt how to properly quantify risks as words such as "significant risk" and "highly probable" are not particularly helpful as we found out when we had our first exercise to try to come to a class consensus about what these words really mean. Quantifying risks to collections is important as it can help to eliminate "political" situations where those who shout loudest or provide the strongest arguments get most resources to manage their collections. It can aso help in situations when limited resources are available and difficult decisions have to be made about what gets done.


So are there more risks associated with managing micropalaeontological specimens than any other specimens? Probably not. This course was a great opportunity to speak with other collections managers from the Museum to see the sorts of issues they face and see that we are all in the same boat. Is it harder to spot micropalaeontological specimens/collections at risk? Definitely. The size and nature of the specimens mean that expert knowledge and and a lot of time to look at material carefully under a good quality microscope are essential. Below are some images of specimens at risk. The field of view for each image is about 1cm. Please don't imagine that all our specimens look like these!




The glass is broken that covers these specimens so dust and other pollution can now get into the cavity. (The glass has since been replaced).




These specimens are suffering from dampness and have some fungus growing on them. (This occurred before the specimens were donated to the museum so the specimen is now isolated from the rest of the collection and kept at a good temperature and humidity to avoid further growth).



These specimens are loose and each time the drawer that housed them was opened they rubbed together and crumbled. (They are now stuck firmly to the slide that houses them).


We learnt that to calculate the risk we need to work out the percentage of specimens in our collections that could potentially be lost or damaged. This is where it gets harder to apply to the micropalaeontology collections here at the Museum as we don't have these details at present. A thorough condition survey is needed before we can properly quantify the risks.


Finally we learnt how to manage the risks we identified by avoiding, blocking, detecting, responding and recovering. The take home message that we all clearly found was that this needs to be a team effort. A conservator, fossil expert, curator or facilities manager can't make these judgements on their own but are all needed to provide the information needed to properly quantify risks to collections. The challenge in the future is to work effectively together to carry out a collections risk assessment for our whole collection, not just for Micropalaeontology or for Palaeontology but for the whole museum. Rob Waller's course has gone a long way towards helping us to do this.


Working while I sleep

Posted by Giles Miller Jul 6, 2011

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




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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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


Film crews are not an uncommon sight behind the scenes at the Natural History Museum but they have never come to see me ... until recently, that is.


Filming takes place in the Palaeontology Department regularly for documentaries, with staff interviewed or specimens brought out from their cabinets for a few minutes of fame. Usually the film crews want large vertebrates like dinosaurs or early human fossils, and one or two members of staff are well known for regular appearances in the media. For example, an episode of the BBC TV show New Tricks was filmed after hours last November and recently the department was featured in the BBC Documentary Museum of Life.

At the time I was disappointed that no aspect of micropalaeontology was featured in the BBC’s programme. So it was a pleasant surprise when I was asked to provide some specimens for a Korean film crew from EBS (Educational Broadcasting System) who were making a documentary on the early evolution of life called "The Secret Lives". They wanted to know about the earliest armoured fishes, the arandaspids.


These early fish were probably poor swimmers, scrabbling around on the bottom of the shallow sea, filtering for food. They play an important role in helping us to understand the early evolution of vertebrates. For further details including a picture of a whole arandaspid fish see:


Perhaps my most important fossil discovery was some fragments of the arandaspid Sacabambaspis in a consultancy sample sent to me from Oman in 2005. I wasn’t expecting to find fish and certainly not anything as significant as this. Luckily for me a university colleague had a large grant to study them so he funded a trip there in November 2006.

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Wadi Daiqa, Oman


Because they are so small we were not expecting to see any "in the field" and were expecting to have to take back rocks to the Museum to dissolve and analyse. However, on the final day of our trip I saw by my foot a specimen with some tiny fish fragments.


The specimens themselves appear on the surface of some rocks as tiny black specks so I was amazed that I managed to see them (especially as I was told on my return that I would need glasses for reading!).


As a result of my find we went back in 2007 to collect some more samples. The image below suggests that they should be easy to spot. However, this is the very best specimen discovered after days of searching and the fragments are much larger than the original find.


The film crew first wanted a close up of the rock...



Close up of the surface of the rock being filmed. Impoverished curators use a one pence piece for scale.



Filming a close up of the arandaspid fish fragment rock in the Palaeontology Imaging Suite.


Then they wanted me to talk about its significance and say what it tells us about early fishes and their habitat.


The Oman discoveries showed that the fish were present all around the margins of the ancient continent of Gondwana and not just in the southern regions as had previously been shown by the findings from South America and Australia. In the Ordovician period about 450 million years ago, Gondwana was an amalgamation of what we currently know as Africa, South America and Australia with some parts of China and the Middle East.


Rocks from similar geological settings have produced similar fish fossils from Argentina, Bolivia and Australia so we know that this particular type of fish lived in shallow waters on the continental margins of Gondwana.

After this they wanted to film a close up of some arandaspid scales and plates on a computer screen. The filming took place in the Palaeontology Department’s imaging suite where we used a Leica microscope with a Zeiss Axiocam digital camera to provide a close up of some of the specimens that we found.



Zeiss Axiocam set up in the Palaeontology Imaging Suite.

Here I was able to show a close up of the rock on the computer and to show some features of the microscopic fragments that were inside it. I have already photographed some fragments by scanning electron microscope (SEM) so I was also able to show some of these to illustrate the close up features of some arandaspid fish scales. The “oak leaf”-like tubercles are typical of this type of fish.


Scanning electron microscope image of a scale of Sacabambaspis showing oak-leaf tubercles. The scale on the bottom is 0.38mm so the width of the scale is less than 1mm.

Sadly, I’m not sure I’ll ever see the final product as I don’t think our TV gets EBS. However, I am happy to play a small part in researching into some of the earliest vertebrates to have lived on our planet. 


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


Me, why and what's to come

Posted by Giles Miller Jun 21, 2011

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


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


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




Outside the Museum


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


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


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

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


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


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


Giles Miller



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Giles Miller

Giles Miller

Member since: Apr 21, 2010

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

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