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Curator of Micropalaeontology's blog

20 Posts tagged with the foraminifera tag

We are showcasing our microfossil tree on the Climate Change Station at the annual Science Uncovered event on Friday 26 September. This remarkable item was created and generously donated by Chinese scientist Zheng Shouyi, and in this post I'll explain how it demonstrates the beauty and composition of foraminifera, climate change and our unseen collections.



The microfossil tree will be on display at Science Uncovered on the 26 September.


A 6ft aluminium stand with 24 arms hangs 120 plastic models of different species of foraminifera and was generously donated to us earlier this year by Zheng Shouyi of the Institute of Oceanology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Qingdao. She is famous for commissioning and overseeing creation of the famous Foraminiferal Sculpture Park. The models on our tree are magnified 10s to 100s of times.


Species modeled are mainly living examples present in the China Sea and described by Zheng Shouyi during her research. Fossil forms have also been chosen to represent the remarkably wide range of shell compositions and structures created by the single-celled foraminifera. Shouyi was originally inspired by the famous French palaeontologist Alcide d’Orbigny, who created sets of models in 1826 to illustrate the first classification of the foraminifera.




I have chosen four things that our tree shows. There are undoubtedly more and we look forward to discovering them over the next years. Here they are:


1. The beauty of the foraminifera


Everyone who sees our tree remarks how beautiful it is. Zheng Shouyi created them for 'the public to have a share of the diversified and exquisite beauty of the one-celled foraminifera endowed on them by Mother Nature, to inspire scientific, aesthetic and cultural innovations'. Science Uncovered is therefore the perfect venue for us to show this tree in public for the first time.




2. Foraminiferal shell composition


The colours, lustre and textures of the models reflect differences in wall structure and chemical composition of the foraminifera. Most foraminifera are composed of calcium carbonate but the agglutinating foraminifera construct their shells from grains of sand or any suitably sized items available from the ocean bottom. Models representing agglutinating forms on the tree have a sandy texture and mainly a sandy light brown colour to reflect this.


Other forms of calcium carbonate secreted by foraminifera include the porcellaneous varieties where the models appear shiny and milky white. Some calcareous foraminiferal shells of are transparent and glassy while others have translucent white shells that can be perforate or imperforate.



Models of Cribrohantkenina inflata Howe and Hantkenina alabamensis Cushman.


3. Climate change


Two species of hantkeninid foraminifera present on the tree illustrate an interesting story of climate change relating to the fossil record of foraminifera. The extinction of the hantkeninds at the Eocene-Oligocene boundary (about 33-34 million years ago) is thought to relate to fluctuations in climate related to global cooling.


Because planktonic foraminifera, such as the hantkeninids, secrete their shells from the ocean water they lived in, studying isotopic changes in their shell composition can provide information about past changes in ocean composition that are linked to climate. The modern day distribution of planktonic foraminiferal species is often latitudinally restricted, with some preferring cold polar rather then warmer equatorial waters. Studying assemblages of different species in a sample can therefore give past indications of climate.


G sacculifer_blog.jpg

Zheng Shouyi's model of Globigerinoides sacculifer (Brady, 1877) alongside (right) scanning electron microscope images of lectotypes and paralectotypes of the same species from our collections. Images published by Williams et al. (2006) in a paper that I co-authored.


Large numbers of specimens can be recovered from relatively small core samples drilled from the ocean bottom, such as the core that we are showing at the Science Uncovered Event. This makes planktonic foraminifera key to studies in past climates based on the marine stratigraphical record.


4. Our type collections


The tree includes 11 examples of species for which we hold the type specimen. These include examples from historically significant collections such as Brady’s foraminiferal types from the Challenger Collection, the Heron-Allen and Earland Collection and W. K. Parker's types.


We think our microfossil tree fits perfectly with the idea behind Science Uncovered, where scientists come out from behind the scenes to share science and collections that the public would not normally see or perhaps realise existed. If you are in London on 26 September we hope you can come and join us on the Climate Change table under the Darwin Centre cocoon for Science Uncovered.


This week I 'claim an assist' at the start of the football season, visit the lab where David Attenborough once dropped his camera into a vat of acid, move a microfossil tree across the Museum, am reminded how difficult it is to place a monetary value on microfossils and manage to retrieve an important file in preparation for a talk to a local society.




In footballing terms you'd call this 'claiming an assist'. In 1995 I wrote an article in the Palaeontological Association Newsletter advertising the Former BP Microfossil Collection that I was curating at the time. This alerted Prof. Paul Pearson to our collections, he arranged a visit and found some exceptionally preserved material.


His subsequent drilling projects at the same sites in Tanzania have provided some amazing material, both foraminiferal and nannofossil that have made a major contribution to the science of micropalaeontology and have been the basis for the careers of several young researchers making their way in academia.


PF67214_Hantkenina_singanoae_holotype_emend_blog copy.jpg

The holotype specimen of Hantkenina singanoae. Coxall & Pearson, 2006.


Today I am registering some type material Prof. Pearson donated us from his Tanzania work. These type specimens have been published in three key papers in 2004, 2006 and 2014 but the material is currently part of our backlog for computer registration. Most journals require published material to be deposited in museum collections and this remains one of our key methods for collections development.


News of a backlog should not put off potential donors to our collection though. Pretty much every museum has a backlog and it is my priority to register this material, particularly if it has been published. I'd argue that it is better to be in this backlog, safely housed in the Museum and available for study than to be hidden in a drawer in a university office.




This morning I am alerted to a new paper on Research Gate, which is a kind of Facebook-for-academics highlighting the latest work by your peers. This 2014 paper provides new evidence that shows the main conclusion of my 1993 thesis is no longer valid.


My job allows me 10 percent of my time to carry out research projects and today this takes me to the acid lab in the basement to dissolve microscopic teeth called conodonts from Permian limestones from Oman. The aim is to provide dates for other studies where new trilobites and other macrofossils have been found.



The acid laboratory at the Museum. My 3kg limestone samples are in the second bay along in small boxes like the one on the floor to the left.


The laboratory is designed for preparing large vertebrate specimens by dissolving them in acetic acid (vinegar) and was most famously used by David Attenborough in his programme Life on Earth. During the filming of a time lapse series of pictures showing one of these dissolution experiments, Sir David apparently dropped his camera into the vat of acid.




Our Zheng Shouyi microfossil tree is to be photographed in the photo unit today so first thing I place the hanging microfossil models in plastic bags to prevent them from bashing into each other as the tree is wheeled through the gallery. It takes 15 minutes to move a short 20m distance through the Bird Gallery because members of staff on their way into work keep stopping me and asking about it.



The Zheng Shouyi microfossil tree, complete with plastic bags to prevent damage during transit (left) on its way through the Bird Gallery and (right) after its photoshoot.


When I get to the photo unit, photographer Kevin Webb is surprised because he had been told it was a fossil tree and was expecting some fossil wood! I bump into another member of staff who says they have heard about the tree at a Science Uncovered briefing but didn't realise it wasn't a real tree either, so I send some of Kevin's photographs to them for distribution.




As I can't wheel the tree back through the gallery during opening hours I have to collect it early the next day. It takes even longer to get back through the Bird Gallery as there is a considerable amount of interest in the tree. This bodes well for our desk on the Climate Change Station at the forthcoming Science Uncovered Event on 26th September when I will be joined by my colleagues underneath the cocoon of the new Darwin Centre.


More about Science Uncovered 2014


The rest of the day is spent dealing with two loan requests, firstly for long term visitor Yukun Shi who has requested some of our larger benthic foraminifera for CT scanning. Another loan involves some specimens I computer-registered in 1994 but requires some thought as we are required to put a valuation on any material we send out on loan. It reminds me how difficult it is to value microfossil specimens when there is little commercial market for them.




An email today reminds me that a little over a year ago I agreed to give an evening talk to the Harrow and Hillingdon Geological Society. Over the last few years I've given similar talks at St Albans, Horsham and Hertford. I look for the powerpoint file for the talk that had been prepared for another venue but the folder on my hard drive has corrupted, as has the folder on my back-up hard drive. After a few moments of panic I find another copy of the file on the pen drive that I'd used when I last gave the talk.



An Oxford Geology Group advert for a talk I recently agreed to provide in 2015.


My colleague and fellow NaturePlus blogger Dr Erica McAllister is asked to give talks like these all the time. A few months ago I asked her if she ever gets choosy and says no? She said she always says yes if she can, in fact on one day she once gave three! If you have some spare moments then why not check out Erica's blog or read my colleague Mark Graham's guest post where he describes hosting a recent visit from Sir David Attenborough including a trip to the acid lab.


The quick answer to this is no. If you read my post on who visits our collections and why? you will see that we host visits to the microfossil collections from local amateur groups, artists and very occasionally historians. One of my visitors last week, artist Jennifer Mitchell seemed genuinely surprised that we so readily open the door to visitors who are not scientists in professional positions, or university students. This post investigates how she found us and whether we do enough to encourage visits from non-scientists.


Haeckel and the radiolarians


Jennifer was enquiring about the historical collections of famous evolutionary biologist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) and in particular material collected on the H.M.S. Challenger Expedition of 1872-1876. Haeckel published some amazing illustrations of marine life including illustrations of the microscopic radiolarians. Haeckel's work inspired the famous father and son Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka to create glass models of radiolarians, examples of which can been seen in our Treasures Gallery. Jennifer wanted to see the original material from which Haeckel's illustrations were created.


Eucyrtidium_Haeckel_Plate.jpgSome artwork from a monograph published in 1862 by Ernst Haeckel on the radiolarians, alongside a Blaschka glass model of a radiolarian inspired by Haeckel's work and displayed (on rotation) in our Treasures Gallery.


I was interested to hear how Jennifer knew to contact me to arrange access. Her initial enquiry came via the Museum Archives web pages. The archivist responded that Jennifer needed to contact my colleague Miranda Lowe in Life Sciences and Miranda passed the enquiry to me when she realised that it related to our microfossil collections.



One of the Ernst Haeckel slides that Jennifer Mitchell viewed during her visit. Haeckel created sets of slides that he sold to various museums including the British Museum of Natural History.


Less than 5% of our enquiries about the microfossil collections come via the Museum website, where there is a link to a general enquiries e-mail. This general email then gets forwarded to the relevant curator or researcher for them to deal with. The vast majority of the enquiries I get are direct from people that have had some prior connection with me or the Museum.


Does this mean that people find it difficult to know who to contact and are therefore put off enquiring about our collections? Jennifer's example suggests that this might be the case, although she did finally find the relevant person via several emails.


Let's digitise


Are we doing enough to let people know about our behind the scenes collections? Our website gives some details but the vast majority of our microfossil collections are not findable via a search facility on our site because they are not computer registered. Mainly visitors know of our collections because of the publications that cite them.


The Museum is engaging in a major digitisation project aimed at digitising 20 million of our specimens in the next 5 years. This will almost certainly help, but my experience of delivering collections information to the web is that you still need to keep telling the relevant audiences that you can search for specimens on our site by advertising the URL.



This is what Haeckel saw down the microscope. It's amazing to see the material he used to create the illustrations in his famous monographs. Even with modern microscopes the depth of field issue means that the specimens are never all in focus at once hence the blurry nature of this image.


Would we get more enquiries if we more proactively advertised contact details and that we facilitate access to our behind the scenes collections to a wider audience by appointment? Almost certainly we would. I see it as an important part of my role to make people aware that our collections are here to be used by whoever wants to use them. This was the over-riding reason for me in starting this blog.


However, hosting an increased number of visits and maintaining visitor facilities is a major drain on resources such as staff time. I firmly believe that it is our duty to make these collections available to everyone, but it does come at a cost.


A wider reach with limited resources?


Some of my colleagues in charge of popular and high profile parts of our collection host a constant string of visitors, so advertising to a wider audience would not be appropriate because resources are not available to cope with increased visitor numbers. I would argue that the Museum galleries allow access to a wider audience for these types of collection (e.g. dinosaurs, meteorites, early humans, mammoths).


For the microfossil collections, where we have virtually nothing on display, it is a balancing act between advertising to promote access and encouraging so many visitors that we don't have the resources to deal with them.


So our collections are available to a wider audience beyond professional scientists and students, but I would argue that we could do more to advertise our microfossil collection to all audiences by appointment. Jennifer suggested 'to be able to contact the curator or appropriate person directly from the website and let them deal with the request directly would be more efficient for everyone especially the curators'.


It will be really interesting to see how enquiries access is handled when the current project to revamp our Museum website is finished. I'd also love to hear any opinions on access to behind the scenes collections, particularly if you have ever tried to find out about and arrange a visit to our microfossil collections.


Search our digitised microfossil collections


One of my curatorial predecessors Randolf Kirkpatrick (1863-1950) thought that larger benthic foraminifera (LBFs) were so important that he published a theory that they were vital to the formation of all rocks on earth. Our collection of LBFs has received relatively little attention over the 20 years I have been at the Museum, but recently it has been the most viewed part of the microfossil collection.



Some images of larger benthic foraminifera (LBF) taken by Antonino Briguglio, a recent SYNTHESYS-funded visitor to our collections. The images represent specimens roughly the size of a small fingerprint.


Traditionally LBFs have been difficult to study but new techniques, particularly CT scanning, are changing this perception. This post tells the story of Kirkpatrick and explains how the collection is currently being used for studies in stratigraphy, oil exploration, past climates and biodiversity hot spots.


Larger benthic foraminifera (LBF)


Larger benthic foraminifera are classified as microfossils because they were produced by a single celled organism, but they can reach a size of several centimetres. Their study is difficult because it usually relies on destructive techniques such as thin sectioning to make precise identifications. My first line manager at the Museum Richard Hodgkinson was an expert at producing these thin sections. He described the technique of cutting the specimens exactly through the centre as an art rather than science. Sadly there are very few people in the world skilled enough to make these sections, but thankfully the Museum collection is packed with LBF thin sections available for study.


Randolf Kirkpatrick's Nummulosphere


Randolf Kirkpatrick was Assistant Keeper of Lower Invertebrates in the Zoology Department of the British Museum (Natural History), and worked at the Museum from 1886 to his retirement in 1927. He published on sponges but is most famous for his series of four books entitled The Nummulosphere that he had to pay to publish himself because his ideas were so unusual. In the Introduction to part four he writes:

'Fourteen years have passed since the publication of Part III of the Nummulosphere studies, but the scientific world has entirely ignored the work to its own real and serious loss... I think it not amiss to call attention to the financial aspect. Since its beginning in 1908, this research has cost me much over £2000, all paid out of a modest salary and pension, and certainly by a cheerful giver.'




Kirkpatrick developed a theory that at one stage Earth was covered with water and LBFs of the genus Nummulites accumulated into a layer he called 'The Nummulosphere'. He went on to suggest that all rocks we see now were subsequently derived from this nummulosphaeric layer and he figured examples in his books of supposed nummulitic textures he had seen in granites and even meteorites.




I think that Kirkpatrick would be very interested to hear that scientists are looking for evidence of life on Mars and that meteorites may hold the key to this. Obviously the evidence of life, if it arrives, is almost certainly not going to be a LBF. However, I think that if he were alive today, Kirkpatrick would be very interested to hear of the renewed interest in our LBF collection and that his earlier publications on sponges have also received renewed interest. These publications had been largely ignored because of his later publications of the Nummulosphere theory.



Image of palm-sized model of a nummulite made in plaster of Paris based on an original illustration by Zittel (1876), showing strands of protoplasm colonising its complex shell.


Find out more about Kirkpatrick from the Museum Archives or read the article entitled 'Crazy Old Randolf Kirkpatrick' by Steven Jay Gould in his book The Panda's Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History. Read on to find out about some of the projects that the collection has been used for.


Evaluating past climates and extinctions


Naturalis Biodiversity Center researcher Laura Cotton studied for her PhD in the UK and has been a regular visitor to our LBF collections. She borrowed some rock sample material from Melinau Gorge in Sarawak, Malaysia that was worked on by one of the leading LBF workers of the time, former Natural History Museum Palaeontology Department Associate Keeper Geoff Adams (1926-1995). It would have been almost impossible to arrange for this material to be recollected.


In a study published earlier this year, Laura carried out destructive techniques on these samples to release whole rock isotope data that has provided information about the position of an isotope excursion that relates to a period of global cooling and climate disruption. Laura showed that an extinction of LBFs previously described by Geoff Adams occurred prior to this isotope excursion, a situation she had previously described in Tanzania. This suggests that this Eocene-Oligocene extinction of LBFs is a global phenomenon, closely linked to changes in climate around 34 million years ago.



Boxes at our Wandsworth stores containing samples from which much of our larger benthic foraminifera (LBF) collection was obtained. Please note that the temporary box labels in this 2007 picture have now been replaced!


Most of our micropalaeontology rock sample collections are housed at our Wandsworth outstation and this project is a very good example of how duplicate samples are valuable resources for later studies using new techniques.


Studying hotspots of biodiversity in SE Asia


Naturalis researcher Willem Renema has been studying LBFs from SE Asia as part of a large multidisciplinary group including my colleague Ken Johnson (corals). The 'coral triangle' situated in SE Asia contains the highest diversity of marine life on Earth today. Back in time, water flowed from the tropical west Pacific into the Indian Ocean (Indonesian Throughflow) but this closed during Oligocene - Miocene times roughly 25 million years ago.


This interval in geological time is characterised by an apparent increase in reef-building and the diversification other faunas including the LBFs and molluscs, leading to the formation of the present day 'coral triangle'. The project aims to investigate how changes in the environment led to the high diversity of species present today.



Some slides from the Geoff Adams Collection from SE Asia scanned by Malaysian intern student Zoann Low.


Our LBF collections are very strong from this area of the world following the work of Geoff Adams. Two curatorial interns Faisal Akram and Zoann Low from Universiti Teknologie PETRONAS in Malaysia have helped greatly to enhance this area of the collection by providing images and additional data relating to Geoff Adams' collection and allowing us to prepare data to be released on the Museum data portal and for this 'coral triangle' project.


Supporting Middle East stratigraphy


One of our most important collections, the former Iraq Petroleum Collection contains many LBFs that help to define the stratigraphy of oil bearing rocks of the Middle East. Some significant early oil micropalaeontologists such as Eames and Smout of BP also contributed to the collection.



Recent donation from Oman of some Permian larger benthic foraminifera (LBF) of the genus Parafusulina.


A major publication on the collection by Museum Associate John Whittaker and others is being updated by John and a team of scientists including our own Steve Stukins and Tom Hill. We look forward to seeing this published in a major book in the next couple of years.


Atlas of larger benthic foraminifera


LBF worker Antonino Briguglio was successful with an application to SYNTHESYS, a European fund that facilitates visits to museum collections for European researchers. He visited us in March at the same time as Russian LBF worker Elena Zakrevskaya as part of work to compile an Atlas of LBFs. Antonino's work has included CT scanning LBF specimens and a video showing the architecture of the internal chambers of Operculina ammonoides:





CT scanning has opened up a whole new method for studying LBFs and made it much easier to create virtual sections through specimens without the need for expert and time consuming thin sectioning. We hope that our collection can be an excellent source for those wishing to CT scan LBFs and recently we were in negotiations with long term Museum visitor Zukun Shi who is studying fusuline specimens like the ones illustrated on my hand above.


This collection may never be as important as Kirkpatrick thought it was. However, it is a really excellent example of one that has become more relevant recently as new techniques are applied to its study. 


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.


Tweeted_christmas_slides_slide_only copy.jpg

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.


Tweeted_christmas_slides_round_only copy.jpg

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.



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.


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



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.


Fig 7.1c (holotype) u1337a 42xcc_blog.jpg

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.



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.


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.


One of the most amazing things about working at the Museum is having access to world class facilities to support my work, whether that be managing the collections or doing research. Members of the Imaging and Analysis Centre have been analysing an important foraminiferal type specimen using the Museum nano-CT scanner. This produces a 3-D rendition of something less than half a millimetre wide and helps with classification of this important species that has potential to date rock formations, show past climates and ocean conditions.



A prescan picture of one of the paratypes of the planktonic foraminifera, Globigerina prasaepis (Blow, 1969).

You can see the top of the mounting pin and the air bubbles in the adhesive I used. The scale bar is 0.1mm.


What's a nano-CT scanner?


Electrons from a scanning electron microscope (SEM) beam are directed onto a metal target and this causes X-rays to be emitted. Tiny specimens or samples are then placed between the source and an X-ray camera, allowing 2-D projections like the one above to be taken. The diagram below is posted on the Museum web site where further details and specifications of the Museum nano-CT system can be found.




How is the specimen prepared for scanning?


The first thing to do is to mount the specimen on the head of a pin. To do this I used an adhesive called Paraloid B72 and a fine paint brush dipped in acetone. The specimen is then coated with a fine 20 nanometre coating of gold under vacuum in a sputter coater.


After this the pin needs to be placed precisely on a special holder or sample stage that is rotated through 360 degrees in the x-ray beam. An image is taken for each degree of rotation. The stage needs to be centred so that the specimen stays in the field of view while it rotates. Fortunately I had the expert help of Tomasz Goral to achieve this.



Tomasz is placing the specimen mounted on the end of a pin, onto the rotating sample stage.



Special software is used to take an image every 45 degrees while the stage rotates 360 degrees under the microscope seen above. This tells us where the centre of rotation of the stage is. The stage is then adjusted so that the specimen is as close as possible to its centre of rotation. With such a small specimen this is harder than you'd imagine but was done expertly by Tomasz.


The rotating stage with adjusting screws and the specimen on the end of a pin.


How long does it take?


Once the stage with the mounted specimen is placed into the SEM chamber there are still a lot of adjustments to be made. Different metal targets are available and, for our analysis, tungsten was chosen to produce the X-rays. Several test scans are required to make sure that the images produced are high enough quality to make 3-D reconstructions. Each image is produced by amalgamating a number of frames. The optimum number and length of frame needs to be chosen.


The final setting Tomasz chose was 20 frames of 12 seconds each for each degree of stage rotation. You can do the maths if you'd like to work out how long it took to take 360 of these images! Usually a scan would be done overnight and sometimes it can take as long as 24 hours.



One of the slices produced by the Gatan software. You can see all the chambers inside the specimen

as well as the pores through the calcium carbonate wall of the specimen.



How do you get a 3-D image?


The X-ray projections for every one degree of rotation are then analysed using software developed by Gatan, the makers of the XuM camera. These projections were then overlaid to produce slices through the specimen that were further analysed using a programme called Drishti developed by the Vizlab at Australian National University. Dan Sykes of the Imaging and Analysis Centre used Drishti to produce a 3-D image of the foram that can be rotated, sectioned or studied at any angle or in any plane.




Film showing the 3-D rendition of the planktonic foraminifera, Globigerina prasaepis



Why are the results of interest?


Some members of the International Subcomission of Paleogene Stratigraphy are currently putting together an atlas of Oligocene planktonic foraminifera. The Oligocene spans a period roughly 24-33 million years ago. Subcomission member Dr Bridget Wade of the University of Leeds writes,


"The analysis of holotypes and original descriptions are key to determining and understanding taxonomic concepts of extinct planktonic foraminifera. Globigerina prasaepis was described by Walter Blow in 1969 from Tanzania. It has been a relatively under-utilised species, and the relationship to other taxa is yet to be fully determined."


2-D Scanning electron microscope images of this species show excellent preservation. However, nano-CT images like these allow us to produce a 3-D model and to look inside the specimen and view the arrangements of the chambers. Hopefully this will help to evalute its relationship to other species of planktonic foraminifera and help scientists to accurately identify this species in research samples.


Because planktonic foraminifera secrete their shells directly from ocean water, studies of the carbon and oxygen isotopic signatures of fossil specimens can tell us a great deal about the conditions in ancient oceans and about previous climates. The distribution of various fossil and recent species can also tell us about the positions and directions of oceanographic currents.



Some examples from our collection of scale models of exceptionally preserved ostracods produced from CT scans.

The real specimens are about 1mm long. For details of how the scans were made, see my post on sex in the Cretaceous.


The future


The Museum is committed to making details of its collections available electronically via the web so they can be used for teaching or in research projects like those mentioned above. The scans produced can also be manipulated using special software to produce various 3-D models and 2-D cross sections. Scale models of these specimens can be printed in acrylic using special 3-D printers (see examples above) and could be made available to interested parties.


The raw data set can be made available to anyone interested in studying any species scanned. This method could be particularly useful for studying species of Foraminifera that are usually illustrated and identified in thin section. Making thin sections of microfossils is a dying art so virtual sectioning using this technique has real potential as it is non-destructive and the plane of section can be varied by choice. Previously we had to rely on the skill of the thin section maker to cut the microscopic specimens exactly through the centre.


The images I have shown are promising but there are some interference patterns that make the final rendition slightly fuzzy (see the slice above for example). The Museum have recently purchased and installed a new scanning electron microscope to replace the one that helped towards creating these trial CT-scans. It will be interesting to work with Dr Farah Ahmed and the CT scanning team in the Imaging and Analysis Centre to see if the new microscope can produce even better results.


I am greatly inspired by the British Geological Survey who are producing 3-D images of their type collections as well as those from other UK museums. It would be great to work with them and do a similar project on microfossil type specimens like the one presented here.


Last year I posted some images of microfossils sent as Christmas cards by Arthur Earland (1866-1958) to his collaborator Edward Heron-Allen (1861-1943). Following my post I was contacted by Brian Davidson who now owns Arthur Earland's collection. He visited the Museum in October and brought with him some fine examples of Arthur Earland's foraminiferal slides. It is 100 years since the creation of one of the Museum slides and the story of Earland and Heron-Allen, their collaboration and their subsequent falling out has been published in The Independent newspaper and subsequently the BBC Focus web site.



The slide of Foraminifera made by Arthur Earland for Edward Heron-Allen in 1912.


How were they made?


Each individual specimen was positioned with a fine paint brush and glued down with gum Tragacanth by Arthur Earland. The specimens are Foraminifera; single celled organisms that mainly form shells of calcium carbonate with one or many openings. The sandy looking lettering on the slide is made mainly from tube shaped agglutinating Foraminifera of the genus Rhabdammina that gathers fine sediment from the sea floor to create a shelter for the single celled organism.




Why were they made?


Arthur Earland made them as gifts for his collaborators and aquaintances. He collaborated with Edward Heron-Allen for over 25 years, including a publication on the Foraminifera of the 1910-1913 Antarctic expedition of the Terra Nova (also known as Scott's Last Expedition). The specimens were chosen to show the amazing range of morphologies of the Foraminifera. Other slides in the collection show assemblages from particular samples, for example dredgings from the Challenger Expedition.



Portraits of Heron-Allen and Earland now hanging in the Museum's micropalaeontology library, The Heron-Allen Library.


Arthur Earland


Earland was a high-ranking civil servant who made a career working for the Post Office Savings Bank. Earland and Heron-Allen shared a room at the British Museum (Natural History) where they were able to work on the Foraminifera in an unpaid capacity. Earland's private collection is now owned by Brian Davidson who bought it from Brigadier H. G. Smith who had obtained it from the Estate of F. W. Mills in 1952. Earland must therefore have disposed of his collection well before his death in 1958. Foraminiferal slides made by Earland have been recorded in Ireland and also in Scotland where he went to live after his falling out with Heron-Allen. Brian Davidson has a listing for a 1,500 specimen slide made by Earland that has not been located in any museum collection.


Edward Heron-Allen


Heron-Allen, a Lawyer by profession, also had an unpaid position at the British Museum (Natural History). He was responsible for gathering much of the early microfossil collection as well as a vast library of foraminiferal books which he donated to the Museum in 1926. They are now housed, along with more recent microfossil library acquisitions, in the 'Heron-Allen Library'. The web site of the Heron-Allen Society lists his interests: violin making, palmistry, Persian texts, Selsey, esoteric fiction and asparagus. A number of publications detailing Heron-Allen's interests are available via the society.



The "Christmas card" slide made in 1930 and a 1922 "Thank you" slide made by Arthur Earland for Edward Heron-Allen. The 1930 slide contains far fewer specimens than some made in the 1920s that fill the whole cavity. This may represent a waning of their relationship by this time.


Why did they fall out?


In the early 1930s their long collaboration ended suddenly. Anecdotal evidence suggests they visited the Museum to work on different days after this to avoid seeing each other. Historical data and two key pieces of evidence in the Museum archives suggest a number of factors in the deterioration of their personal and professional relationship:


  • Poor health

    At the time both Heron-Allen and Earland were in poor health. Heron-Allen was devastated by the tragic death of his youngest daughter Armorel in a car accident in 1930 while Earland had angina and was unhappy at being passed over for the position of controller of the Post Office Savings Bank.


  • Authorship on a publication

    Part 2 of the monograph on the Discovery Foraminifera published by Earland in 1933 tells an interesting story. Part 1 had been published jointly by Heron-Allen and Earland but a note in part 2 states "Owing to illness, my colleague Edward Heron-Allen was unable to take as large a share as usual in the preparation of this report. At his own request, and against my wish, his name is omitted from the authorship".

    Heron-Allen's personal copy of the monograph tells a different story. A handwritten note, that subsequently had several layers of paper stuck over it, reads; "I had my name removed from the titles of this paper, when, on my return from Ceylon in 1931 I found that Earland had claimed all my work upon it as his own, and that, not having knowledge of the German language, he had ignored Hans Wiesner's report on the 'Süd-Polar Expedition' in which (in my opinion) most of his new genera and species are described and figured."


  • Division of labour

    The Museum archives contain a letter written in Edinburgh in 1943 from Earland to Ovey, who was then curator of Foraminifera at the Museum. It itemises in great detail exactly who did what during their association. It would appear that Earland did most of the slide related work while Heron-Allen did the writing, often using his personal wealth to encourage editors to accept their manuscripts for publication (In the Heron-Allen Library we have the receipts for various bills paid relating to illustrations and publishing).

    What is certain is that Earland's collection does not contain any "Christmas Card Slides" from Heron-Allen. Either they were never made or they were destroyed by Earland. The collection's owner Brian Davidson tells me that any references to Heron-Allen on the slides have also been scored out.


  • Jealousy and recognition

    It is clear from the 1943 letter that Earland was jealous of Heron-Allen who had all the connections and the money to pay for publications while Earland felt that he was the one doing the work. He may have had a point as all their papers were by Heron-Allen and Earland with Earland's name never as first author. Heron-Allen had also been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in recognition of his work on the Foraminfera. 


  • A female acquaintance

    The 1943 letter states that everything was fine until "that final woman" came around. Heron-Allen was a very charismatic and popular figure and often had an entourage of young females. It would appear that one of them may have been involved in the rift between the two scientists. The 2012 Annual Meeting of the Heron-Allen Society was entitled "Edward Heron-Allen and some women of his acquaintance"!





Earland's mounting skill, diligence and Heron-Allen's writing, connections and money was a fruitful combination for 25 years. Many publications and the accumulation of the best foraminiferal collection and library of the time was the result. The Heron-Allen and Earland Collection is the backbone of the current collection, in which the 1912 Christmas Card slide is one of the most treasured items. Happy 100th anniversary of the sending of this microfossil Christmas card and more importantly, Happy Christmas to you all!


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


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


1. Boxgrove about 500,000 years ago



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


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


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




2. Pakefield about 750,000 years ago


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


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


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


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


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



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


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




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


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


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




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


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


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




The foraminiferal species Jadammina macrescens is common in saltmarsh environments.


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




The foraminiferal species Ammonia batavus is characteristic of warmer climates.


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


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


Over the last month or so we have been preparing a large microfossil teaching collection for loan to the University of Birmingham to support a new postgraduate masters course on Applied and Petroleum Micropalaeontology. The collection consists of 730 slides and over 2,500 countable specimens housed in a single cabinet.


Microfossils in the collection represent all the different foraminiferal groups and were compiled by Prof. John Haynes of University of Wales, Aberystwyth where he used the collection to teach an M.Sc. course in Micropalaeontology before his retirement in 1993.



A glass slide with mounted specimens arranged to illustrate the shell structure in various groups of Foraminifera. The crack across the slide was caused, presumably by a student, while focussing the microscope too closely on the slide! In general the collection is in remarkable condition considering the many years of use for teaching.


The loaned teaching collection cabinet represents one of 62 microslide cabinets donated to the Museum by the University of Wales, Aberystwyth in the early 2000s along with associated residues, samples, notes and student theses. The university stipulated that a well curated collection be left before a student could graduate so the entire collection is in beautiful order.


Prof. Haynes supervised over 80 M.Sc. dissertations and 30 M.Phil and Ph.D. research students before he retired. The Aberystwyth Collection also contains ostracod collections compiled by Prof. Robin Whatley and his students. A searchable collections level catalogue of the Aberystwyth Microfossil Collection can be found on the Museum website.



A thin section of limestone composed almost entirely of Lepidocyclina, a genus of larger Foraminifera.


The University of Birmingham is the only university in the UK currently offering a full M.Sc. course specialising in micropalaeontology. The course started in October 2012 and the teaching in the first month will include classes on Foraminifera taught by Haydon Bailey.


Foraminifera and other microfossil groups are very useful for dating rock formations as well as giving details of the environment that they were deposited in. This sort of information is vital in producing models for exploration of petroleum and other natural resources.


To prepare the loan we had to compile a list of all specimens, count them if possible, number the slides individually and make notes on the condition of specimens and slides that were in poor condition. A big thank you to Haydon Bailey and Daryl Tappin for help in preparing this vast loan.


Below are a few more images of some of the specimens that caught my eye while I was checking the loan. I hope that both you and the University of Birmingham students will enjoy this amazing collection!



A thin section of Alveolina elliptica. The cracks are in mounting balsam.


A slide with an uncountable number of foraminiferal specimens from the Nothe Clay of the Jurassic coast. Roughly 2,500 specimens were counted on the loaned slides. In reality the collection consists of far more than 2,500 specimens as we did not try to count the individual specimens on 200 of the 730 slides because there were too many of them.


.. and finally Nummulites britannicus.


I have just read an excellent blog article by Nick Poole about the Smithsonian Digitisation Fair in Washington. I gave a talk last December about the cost of mass digitisation at the Annual General Meeting of the Geological Curators' Group at Leeds Museum and feel inspired to jot down the thoughts of a curator in the middle of a mass digitisation project. Here are my 10 steps to mass digitisation dealing with some of the pitfalls, how we have managed to overcome them, a timeline and finally an estimate of the cost of this mass digitisation project.


  • Data entry templates

I have been asked so many times if I can provide a template for easy data capture. In my experience, each dataset is different and considerable initial thought is required to design a good data capture structure. I was given 100,000 micropalaeontological records back in 2009 that were created using MS Access on a data entry sheet designed to mirror fields in our KE Software collections management system, KE Emu. You can never spend too much time at the start of the process testing how it works so that the data you capture is useable. It could save weeks if not months of re-formatting at a later stage. This is especially critical if you will later rely on someone else to deliver your data to the web.




The old paper microfossil registers transcribed into an MS Access database at the start of the project


  • Getting help with entering data

Two contract data entry clerks were responsible for initial data entry of our old micropalaeontology specimen registers. There has been a lot of debate about whether non-specialists can work as accurately as specialists. I would say that they did an excellent job in transcribing exactly what was written in the registers apart from when the handwriting was poor. I often had trouble interpreting what had been written in these cases! They did it in a fraction of the time it would have taken me. I haven't tried crowdsourcing but I am certainly considering it to help clear some of the electronic backlog registration that has accumulated since we stopped recording everything in pen and ink.


  • Cleansing

The data entry clerks were told not to do any interpretation and to transcribe exactly what had been written in the registers. This is fine because we wanted to maintain a good balance between recording the original register data and making informed interpretations. No orginal data has been removed during the migration as we were able to record details in verbatim fields. Considerable cleansing of the data has been neccessary, mainly because the data in our registers is not sufficiently detailed or needs updating to reflect changes in political boundaries. Various other key areas required cleansing and these are dealt with below.


  • Maintaining data standards

There are many ways of writing people's names (Miller, C. G., Mr C. G. Miller, Dr C. Giles Miller ... etc) and the hand written registers reflect the fact that there was never a standard followed. Matching records in the MS Access database with those already in KE Emu was therefore difficult to impossible without creating many duplicate entries. To avoid this, we compiled a list of all the names associated with the collection and distilled them down to a list of about 2,000. We then checked these against all current museum records and found that many had already been created by other members of Museum staff. We then linked these records directly back to our data using a internal record number or "irn" so that we could be sure that the correct record in the correct format was being linked to. New records were created if neccessary from the dataset of names we compiled.



Some relatively complete examples of bibliographic citations


  • Breaking tasks down into manageable blocks

In some ways we did this with the process we used for people names. I was interested to see in Nick Poole's blog that the Smithsonian are using similar strategies of breaking the tasks down into smaller blocks to achieve larger digitisation goals. Bibliographic citations like those above, have not been complete enough to create records direct from the registers as many use abbreviations, lack vital data or need further research to make them meaningful. I wrote a short subproject proposal for internal funds to hire an assistant for 6 months who created full reference details for all the published specimens in the collection. In reality this took a much shorter time than expected and she was able to help with many other tasks associated with preparing the data for migration into KE Emu.


  • Using pre-existing datasets

Again the registers were not complete enough to be able to create identification records from scratch because generic names were often abbreviated or  the original describing author details were missing. There are many biodiversity resources on the internet including the Ellis and Messina Catalogue of microfossil species published by the Micropalaeontology Press. I asked them if I could use their list of microfossil names to help populate our database and for a small fee they provided an MS Excel file of all the species in their database. I imported about 50,000 complete microfossil names into KE Emu and used a simple VLOOKUP function in MS Excel to match these with electronic records created from the paper registers. When no match was achieved I checked why, corrected the data if neccessary or used the data to create a new species records in KE Emu.


  • Thinking positively

Shortly after arriving at the Museum in the 1990s I remember being told by a senior member of staff that it would take us 250 years to database the entire collection. Sometimes it's difficult to get started when you feel that your efforts are only just touching the surface or will go off into some black hole of a database that won't ever be useful because hardly any of your hundreds of thousands of objects are registered in it. I have to admit that there have been some times in my career when I have felt like this. My mentor encouraged me to see the bigger picture and the benefits of the project that I was involved in. Bringing data checking up to the top of my list of collections management priorities has paid immediate dividends.


  • The bigger picture

There are so many advantages to having the majority of your collection on an electronic database that is searchable via the web. Even though I am already half way though, I have seen real benefits in answering enquiries quickly and easily. Once everything is migrated I will be spotting areas for development of the collection, looking for potential areas for de-accession while gathering hard data on the collection strengths. It is much easier to raise the profile of the collection and encourage visitors to the collections through schemes such as SYNTHESYS when you can send out messages to list-servers advertising a web link to your collection. Another major advantage is that I now have somewhere to associate the many electronic images and documents that relate to my collections and these are being delivered to the web should I choose to.


  • Estimating timescales

The initial data entry from the registers took our two clerks 4 months each to input a total of 100,000 records. In 6 months my assistant created full bibliographic records for the whole dataset and added "irn" references for all of the people associated as either collectors, donors or publishers. The process that has taken longest is my data checking, particularly for the scientific accuracy of the fossil names. I would estimate that I spent between 5 and 10 per cent of my time checking data and preparing import sheets since the project started. I am therefore the log jam! At the current rate we are looking at sometime in 2015 for completion of the entire 100,000 record dataset.



Lyndsey Douglas researching full bibliographic microfossil reference details in the Heron-Allen Library


  • Costs

Obviously it would be imprudent to show a breakdown of salary costs here so I will just say that at Christmas last year when 36,000 KE Emu records had been created, the cost came to roughly one pound per record. This includes the Micropalaeontology Press fee, salary costs for initial data entry, an assistant for 6 months and for 10 per cent of my time. I have not included other expenses like building and IT overheads. I expect that the final cost per record at the end of the project will be slightly less than a pound per record as the major expenditure of salary for the data entry people and the 6 month posts are now accounted for. The final cost will depend on how long it takes me to finish checking and migrating the data.


I may be only half way through importing the 100,000 records, but I would like to think that this project can provide some valuable benchmark data for those planning future projects, suggest some ways of making the process quicker and help with forecasting costs and timeframes.


I'm so tempted to say that a microfossil curator attends meetings and writes e-mails. Sometimes it feels like that. I decided to document a typical day back in January where e-mails and meetings helped prepare towards a loan for an art exhibition, gave news of a potentially exciting new acquisition and a possible research opportunity involving micro-CT scanning.



One of Irene Kopelman's items in the Gasworks Gallery based on microfossils from our collection


The bulk of the e-traffic involves preparations towards an exhibition that opened on 10 Feb at the Gasworks Gallery near the Oval Cricket Ground. Artist Irene Kopelman's work was partly inspired by some slides of radiolarian microfossils from our collections. We are preparing an exhibition loan of the slides and today there is a lot of correspondence discussing arrangements for two open day tours I am holding to accompany the exhibition.


Most microfossils are so small that I have to deal with images rather than the specimens themselves. We recently sent some specimens on loan to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington where a researcher has made some images for a publication and left them on an ftp site for me to collect. I am also making arrangements for other images of our specimens to be sent to us by one of our regular visitors. They have posted them on an excellent site for people interested in foraminiferal microfossils.



Aggerostramen rustica, a type of foraminiferal microfossil that builds a shell from sediment. In this case, sponge spicules have been chosen. This image has been posted on-line at the site mentioned above


Typically a day will not pass without some correspondence with future visitors to the collections and/or an actual visit from a scientist. Two visitors want to come in a couple of days time and another wants to visit the following week to discuss a short paper on a major collection of 2,500 slides that they donated last year.


In a few days time I'm off to our collections outstation in Wandsworth to meet OU PhD student Kate Salmon who is using our collections to study ocean acidification. I need to book a Museum vehicle to transport me to Wandsworth and to bring the collections back that she would like to borrow.


I mentioned meetings but you'll be glad to know that I'm not going to go into detail here. From one meeting I come away with two additional enquiries to answer; a request by a journalism student for a 5 minute mock radio interview and a student wants images of some of our specimens for their thesis.


I am also asked to assess a destructive sampling request as my boss is away. Sometimes our samples or specimens need further analysis to reveal their true scientific potential. In this case the borrower wants to make thin sections of fragments of fish fossils and to carry out 3-D imaging using a synchrotron (see my previous blog on sex in the Cretaceous for details of synchrotrons). The work will potentially give important details about early fish evolution so the request is ratified.



Erasmus student Angelo Mossoni using one of the scanning electron microscopes at the Museum.



The excellent research facilities here at the Museum offer many exciting possibilities. Today an e-mail has come in requesting bids for use of the micro-CT scanner. I want to test whether this method can provide 3-D images of some tiny specimens the reverse sides of which we cannot analyse at the moment because they are stored embedded in wax. If it works, some 3-D images of some of our most important specimens will be delivered to the web. Some of these species have been used extensively in studies on climate change and oceanography.


One message informs me that an exciting new sample has just been sent as a donation from Oman. When it arrives I will need to dissolve some of it in acid (vinegar) to release the tiny fossils. Traces of fish microfossil are clearly visible on the surface of the rock so this sounds very promising and possibly the subject of a new paper on early fish evolution.


It would appear from everything listed above that there is not much time for any other activities. However, documenting the collections for the web is one of our core duties so I find time in the afternoon to work towards a documentation project. I am also on duty for an hour to answer questions from my fellow curators and my mentee Jacqui about using the databasing system.


A number of people including my two new colleagues Tom and Steve, pop their heads round my door to ask questions about the collections or bring me information. Retired Museum Associate Richard Hodgkinson is in today and has some questions about his project. Another retired member of staff brings me a copy of his latest paper and former volunteer and now colleague Lyndsey Douglas comes to tell me that my blog has been quoted in the January edition of the Museums Journal!


It's an amazingly variable job being a microfossil curator and no day is ever the same as another. I love my job and I think of it as unique. I don't know of anyone else in the world who has a similar job in Micropalaeontology. If you have a similar job, I'd love to hear from you.


The Antarctic is very much the flavour of the month here. To mark the 100th anniversary of Scott reaching the South Pole, a new exhibition opened on 20th Jan at the Museum. The Museum holds over 40,000 items relating to Scott's Terra Nova Expedition of 1910 so I thought I would show you details of one of the treasures that remains hidden from view. A wonderful book of bound documents tells the story of Edward Heron Allen and Arthur Earland's study of the Terra Nova material; how the collection was acquired, studied and the significance of the discoveries that they made.



The start of the letter from Edward W. Nelson to Arthur Earland prior to the expedition.


In my microfossil Christmas card post I mentioned that Heron-Allen and Earland had worked on material from Scott's Terra Nova Expedition of 1910. Although they had not been on the trip, a letter from crew member and biologist Edward W Nelson (1883-1923) clearly shows that Earland had been in contact before the trip to encourage Nelson to look out for foraminifera. The exhibition at the Museum has a picture of Nelson along with all of the other crew members and outlines some of the scientific research that went on as part of the expedition as well as the expedition to the South Pole.



Part of the Heron-Allen Type Slide Collection from the Terra Nova Expedition material.


The Terra Nova was the ship that carried Scott and his party to the Antarctic and lent its name to the expedition. Samples were collected from the ocean bottom as it travelled from Britain via the Atlantic Ocean to the Antarctic. While in the Antarctic, ocean bottom samples were dredged too, many of which contained the remains of foraminifera. Even while Scott was on his way to and from the South Pole, the Terra Nova was collecting scientific material from Antarctic region.



Heron-Allen's signed personal annotated copy of the 1922 publication with Arthur Earland and part of one of the letters from Sydney Harmer bound next to it.


The Keeper of Zoology at the Museum at the time was Dr Sydney Harmer who had worked with Terra Nova expedition member D. G. Lilley to publish a list of the samples and sampling details. The first set of letters are from Harmer inviting Heron-Allen and Earland to work on the material. They clearly state that the authors will not be paid and that the final work will be edited by Harmer himself. Neither of them were ever officially employed by the museum but had an honorary status and were provided room to work at the Museum.



Portraits of Heron-Allen and Earland now hanging in the Museum micropalaeontology library, The Heron-Allen Library.


Harmer wrote, 'In a group like the foraminifera I imagine that you would have no difficulty in putting on one side enough duplicates to compensate you in some measure for the trouble of working out the collection.' A later letter states 'I am delighted to have placed it in the hands of an enthusiast to whom no trouble seems too great.' A number of years later, Heron-Allen donated his entire foraminiferal collection to the Museum so all of the original samples, the described material and Heron-Allen's slides are now in our care.


This type of information about the acquisition of the collection is very important as it clearly states the agreement between the scientists about how and where the material should be deposited. Heron-Allen was certainly the curator's friend because of the meticulous way he documented and kept relevant archival correspondence and other materials associated with his collections.



Part of one of the illustrations of foraminifera hand drawn by Mary H Brooks.



The receipt for payment for the artwork sent by Mary H. Brooks. It was paid for by Heron-Allen himself.


Heron-Allen's copy of the paper is also annotated in red ink with references to slides in the Museum collections. Heron-Allen constructed a series of 'type slides' for all of the samples that he worked on. For the Terra Nova Expedition these were slides showing good examples of each of the foraminiferal species encountered at each collecting station of the expedition. As a result this library volume is an extremely useful reference to researchers looking at Terra Nova collections and is a great example of the value of the library items that accompany the collections here at the Museum.



Details of some of the 'type slides' from the collection. The material in these slides was being collected by the crew of the Terra Nova from Antarctic waters at the time that Scott was attempting to return from the South Pole.


Some annotations in red made by Heron-Allen that links the published text directly to the 'type slides' illustrated above.


650 species of foraminifera are described in the publication with 46 new to science. Many forms previously described from the Arctic were also recognised in the Antarctic and the previous theory of bipolarity that foraminifera evolved independently in the Arctic and Antarctic was discounted. Many isomorphs (species made of silica where previously found examples were calcareous) were also discovered. A letter in French from the famous foraminiferologist Schlumberger discusses this issue and is also bound into the volume.


It would appear from the correspondence bound into the book after the annotated copy of the paper that the authors had a great many problems in the editorial stage of their publication. There are many letters between Heron-Allen and Harmer discussing issues about the publication proofs. In one letter, Harmer requests that Heron-Allen cuts down the size of the manuscript by reducing the size of the appendices. The volume ends with a poem written by Heron-Allen that starts:


Goodbye old friend our task is over

we bid farewell to the 'Terra Nova'

Henceforth will life be somewhat calmer

For me - 'Eugenie' and Sydney Harmer


The 100th anniversary of the tragic demise of Captain Scott quite rightly makes the headlines. However, it should not be forgotten that the Terra Nova Expedition was responsible for many new scientific discoveries. This amazing volume of hidden treasures is testament to Heron-Allen's meticulous record keeping but also to some of the discoveries that are not normally associated with the Terra Nova Expedition. The new exhibition at the Museum strikes a good balance between telling the story of Captain Scott and highlighting the scientific breakthroughs that resulted from the expedition.


Microfossil Christmas cards

Posted by Giles Miller Dec 20, 2011

At this time of year it is customary to exchange Christmas cards so I thought I would post some images of some 'Christmas Card' slides from our collections. A slide was exchanged each Christmas between Edward Heron-Allen (1861-1943) and Arthur Earland (1866-1958) until they fell out in about 1933. The circular views are about the size of a thumb print so you an imagine the time it took to create each one by carefully selecting, laying out and sticking down individual foraminiferal microfossils.



The 1912 slide with the initials AE (Arthur Earland) clearly visible as well as the date. Written on the cardboard of the slide is "Xmas 1912 Prosit! AE"


Edward Heron-Allen, a Lawyer by profession, had an unpaid position at the British Museum (Natural History) and was allowed a room in which he was able to study the Foraminifera. He was responsible for gathering much of the early microfossil collection as well as a vast library of foraminiferal books which he donated to the museum. They are now housed, along with more recent microfossil library acquisitions in the 'Heron-Allen Library'.



Details of the 1921 slide. On the card surround is written "Greetings from AE Xmas 1921"


Arthur Earland and Edward Heron-Allen collaborated for over 25 years, most notably publishing on the Foraminifera of the Antarctic expedition of the Terra Nova (the expedition also known as Scott's Last Expedition). In around 1933 they had a number of misunderstandings and subsequently fell out. These slides and the archives of letters and books in the Heron-Allen Library here at the Museum hide many interesting historical details. The collections are consulted by social historians as well as scientists for that reason.



Details of a slide given to Heron-Allen by Arthur Earland in 1922.


Edward Heron-Allen had many interests including violin making! (As a violinist myself I would love to have a go on one of his violins). The web site of the Heron-Allen Society lists his interests: violins, palmistry, Persian texts, Selsey, esoteric fiction and asparagus. More details about Heron-Allen can be found by joining the Heron-Allen Society. I shall be providing more details about Heron-Allen and the the foraminiferal collections via this blog. In the meantime I wish you all a very happy Christmas!


Ocean acidification is one of the major effects of increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere caused by the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas). Museum collections of samples from the ocean bottom worldwide are housed at our Wandsworth outstation and are vital to working out how much more acidic the oceans have become since the 19th Century and to helping create models for future changes.



Three bottles of ocean sediment collected in 1891 as part of the H.M.S. Penguin cruise to the Mediterranean


Our outstation at Wandsworth holds the Mineralogy Department's Ocean Bottom Sediment Collection. These are sediment samples from many cruises including the first oceanographic voyage the Challenger Expedition of 1872-1876. I mentioned previously that we hold residues including microfossils at South Kensington so why are these bottles of sediment at Wandsworth of interest to micropalaeontologists?


Potentially these bottles contain many thousands of microfossils (the ones above mention the foraminferal genus Globigerina) and as a result, they have been of interest for two PhD students studying the effects of ocean acidification on micro-organisms.



Open University PhD student Kate Salmon accessing the Ocean Bottom Sediment Collection at the Museum outstation at Wandsworth. Curator Dave Smith is in the background.


Kate Salmon is using mainly foraminiferal microfossils to measure the scale of ocean acidification in the area around Bermuda. To do this she is studying samples collected every 2 weeks for the past 20-30 years in sediment traps on the ocean bottom.


The weights and shell thicknesses of these micro-organisms that use the ocean water to produce their shells of calcium carbonate should be different in pre-industrial samples. If ocean acidification is happening we should see lighter more fragile shells in the present day. Kate is using the Ocean Bottom Sediment Collection at the Museum to find comparative material from pre-industrial times.


Kate recently told me, 'If I do the same shell analyses on these samples, it will give a good comparison of low carbon dioxide conditions with higher carbon dioxide conditions (present day) and I will be able to see how conditions have changed for the calcifying biology of the oceans. I can then use these results to predict any future changes in the calcification of foraminifera and the implications this will have for other creatures living in the water column'.



Part of the residue collection from the H.M.S. Penguin expedition collected in 1891.


Ella Howes, a student at the Laboratoire d'Océanographie de Villefranche sur Mer, France approached us to see if we had any sediment including the remains of tiny organisms called pteropods. These are small planktonic gastropods (floating snails) that have been used extensively in ocean acidification studies. Ella has recent material from near Bear Island in the Mediterranean and wants to compare the composition and structure of these faunas prior to major industrial activity.


She is searching for a particular pteropod species Limacina helicina as well as foraminifera. As with Kate Salmon, she is looking to make measurements of shell thickness to assess possible outcomes of ocean acidification between the Mediterranean and colder water areas.

'In Polar regions the cold temperatures allow increased carbon dioxide in water, potentially causing more extreme repercussions for animals living in these areas. A geographical comparison between the effects on ocean acidification on shell thickness in Polar pteropods and the warmer Mediterranean Sea will be undertaken using modern samples of Limacina helicina and old sediment samples provided by the Natural History Museum' says Ella.



Part of one of four rows of cabinets containing the Ocean Bottom Sediment Collection at the Museum.


When you consider the quantity of material at our Wandsworth outstation, there is limitless potential for similar studies to be carried out. There are literally millions of micro-organsims from the ocean bottom waiting to be studied. Listings of these collections can be found on the Museum web site. In the meantime, I will wait with interest to hear from Kate and Ella if a trip to Wandsworth can help quantify ocean acidification.

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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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