Micropalaeontology is the study of microfossils. Microfossils may be tiny, but they are incredibly important for our understanding of geological time and earth science as a whole.
Although there is no definitive size that distinguishes between a fossil and a microfossil, in general a microfossil requires the use of microscopes for identification.
Microfossil groups include:
Microfossils are found in almost every sedimentary rock and, due to their small size, require only a very small sample of rock to successfully extract hundreds, or indeed thousands, of specimens.
The evolution of microfossils throughout geological time means that when a specific species is encountered, it is possible to date the rock from which it was extracted.
We can also reconstruct past environments and climatic conditions using microfossils, as individual species are often only able to tolerate certain conditions. Based on this principle, scientists have mapped the entire Earth's history:
The application of micropalaeontology to dating and reconstructing environments has made it a vital component in the hydrocarbon industry.
Oil and gas fields are often buried kilometres underground. Boreholes extract sufficient rock material for microfossil analysis, and enable scientists to:
Micropalaeontology is also a very important tool in climate change research. Microfossils often require specific environmental conditions to survive, so studying recent sediments can reveal how the environment has changed over historic and prehistoric periods.