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Curator of Micropalaeontology's blog

3 Posts tagged with the oman tag

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 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.


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.

Oman2007_ 066_blog.jpg

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. 

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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