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Curator of Micropalaeontology's blog

52 Posts tagged with the palaeontology tag

I'm very excited to see that the Museum is running a half term activity called Curious Collectors. As a child I would have loved this as I was an avid collector and had my own rock collection under my bed. Some of my Geology undergraduate colleagues may even remember me at the end of a field trip to Cyprus sitting next to an enormous pile of rocks I had collected and telling me 'you can't possibly take ALL those home on the plane...'


My passion for collecting and collections led me to a career as a curator at the Natural History Museum. What path led me to that dream job and more importantly, what do you need to do to become a curator?



My first field sketch aged 7 and my holiday diary recounting a visit to the Lizard, Cornwall to collect some serpentinite. (Yes serpentinite has purples, reds and greens!). I still have the specimen I collected that day with the help of family friend Chris Moat, frequent donor to 'Museum Giles'.


First off though, what is a curator? This question is probably worthy of a separate blog post and frequently leads to differences in opinion. 'Curator' can mean different things in different types of museums and in different parts of the world. In North America a museum curator is hired to do research and there my job would probably be labelled 'Collections Manager'.


I like the idea that in Australia a curator prepares the pitch for test match cricket but I'm inclined to agree with University College curator Nicholas J Booth who prefers to restrict the use of the term to museums. For the purposes of this blog post I shall say that a curator cares for a collection by enhancing its documentation and storage, maintains access to it by facilitating loans, visits and exhibits and promotes its relevance by engaging with potential users. With that, here's how to become one:


  • Take advice on what to study at University

To work as a curator at the Museum you need to have a relevant science degree. My degree choice of Geology was entirely driven by my desire to find out about the specimens in my personal collection. I remember coming to the Museum in the early 1980s to ask my family friend, the late John Thackray, what A-levels I required to study Geology at University and being dismayed at his answer of 'Maths, Physics and Chemistry'. You will notice that I did not study Biology. At the time I did not know that I would be so inspired to take further studies on microfossils and become a Palaeontologist.


  • Take a further degree?

There is no right or wrong answer here. When I first came to the Museum I was are rare example of a curator in my department with a PhD. A further degree in a relevant subject certainly helps but is not absolutely neccessary. In some ways, curatorial jobs at the Museum are unusually specialised as our main interactions are with research scientists. For positions in other museums it can be more advantageous to have a broader background because you would usually be expected to responsible a much wider range of collections and focus on different tasks. A masters in Museum Studies is often a requirement in these situations. Having said that, the majority of my curatorial colleagues do not have this qualification.


  • Get some work experience

Specialising made my career prospects narrower and my PhD was followed by a lengthy period of job seeking. I was not getting interviews because I had qualifications but no experience. I decided that a spot of volunteering was what was required to boost my CV and get me on the career ladder so I moved from Leicester to London to volunteer at the Museum. It's never too early to start thinking about getting some experience and school work experience students often come to the Museum. Volunteer and work experience opportunities are advertised regularly on the museum web site.


  • Be in the right place at the right time

I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time as I volunteered just as a new microfossil collection had been donated that was relevant to my PhD. Shortly afterwards a temporary position became available as Curator of the former BP Microfossil Collection. I held this temporary position for 6 years until I was successful with an application to get a position on the permanent staff. It's the same in almost any profession. Being in the right place at the right time can make a big difference and sometimes you have to be patient before the right opportunity comes up.


  • Find out more

If you'd like information about curators and their activities then consider joining the Geological Curators' Group or the Natural Sciences Collections Assocation (NatSCA).  There are many curators like myself blogging and you can also find out more about their daily activities through Facebook or Twitter (follow us on @NHM_Micropalaeo). The Museum web site includes a fossil hunting guide if you feel inspired to go out and do some collecting yourself.


  • Start now!

Don't leave it too late to get involved like I did. If you can get to London between 18th-22nd Feb then why not sign up to be a Curious Collector?  If you can't get to London then why not contact your local museum and get involved in similar activities? It's a great way to start gathering that experience needed to help you become a curator.##


In January we transferred the Botany Palynology (pollen and spore) Collection to a new location within the micropalaeontology collections. The  collection includes 32,500 glass microscope slides and 155 files of images of pollen and spores from named living plants from worldwide locations. So why should we be interested in moving this collection to the Palaeontology Department?


This collection is already being used by Earth Science staff studying the contents of fossil hyena dung, evidence of early human agricultural activity and changes in the landscape over approximately the last 2.5 million years as a result of climate change. The collection also has potential for supporting forensic studies to help solve crime.



Dr Tom Hill taking great pride in wheeling a trolley of pollen and spore slide cabinets past the giant Sequoia in the main hall of the museum. For health and safety reasons we were only able to move the collection before the Museum opened to the public.


In one of my first blog posts - what is micropalaeontology? - I mentioned that there is not always a clear distinction between fossil and extant (living) collections and this is very much the case here. This is an important collection for palynologists looking to reconstruct environments over the the Quaternary Period which covers approximately the last 2.5 million years as many of the plant species present today are represented in the Quaternary fossil record.


Pollen and spore grains have an outer wall of an extremely resistant material known as sporopollenin so are widespread in both fossil and recent terrestrial and near shore sediments. Most are smaller than 50 microns so relatively small samples can produce thousands of pollen grains of species diagnostic of particular climatic conditions.




Some of Tom's Holocene core from Somerset, showing a lighter estuarine layer between freshwater peats.


Dr Tom Hill of the Earth Sciences Department at the Museum is analysing pollen from sediments from Somerset that cover the Holocene Epoch (i.e. the last 11,500 years).  He collected them using a sedimentary corer, which is essentially a larger version of an apple corer that is inserted into the ground to extract deposits preserved beneath our feet. He said, 'by taking sediment samples at regular intervals throughout the sediment sequence, you are able to develop ‘snapshots’ of what the landscape looked like every few hundred years.'




Tom doing fieldwork with a sediment corer in a 'real field' at Shapwick Heath Nature Reserve.


The landscape changed in response to climate and human activity: an abundance of tree pollen suggests that woodlands dominated the landscape while shrubs, herbs and grasses infer an open grassland setting. 'Shifts from woodlands to grasslands are often indicators of human activity in the form of deforestation; the earliest cereal pollen found in these deposits is an indicator of the onset of agriculture during the Holocene' according to Tom.



Hordeum secalinum - barley, BM10490. Cereal crop pollen grains like these are much larger than average (>40 microns), are typically round with a single opening (pore) and indicate periods of cultivation during prehistory. Photo Tom Hill.




Artemisia - mugwort, BM8975_1. This species/genus thrives on bare ground with immature soil and is often found in sediments accumulated during cold periods such as late glacial episodes in the Earth's history. Photo Tom Hill.


Mark Lewis of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) Project has been using the distribution of pollen from sediments and hyena coprolites (fossil dung), to reconstruct Quaternary environments. Coprolite pollen is useful in situations where sedimentary pollen is absent, for example in caves, where evidence of early humans is sometimes found. Pollen grains can occasionally be reworked from older sediments so analysis of coprolites alongside sediments associated with early human finds can be a useful test to see if the pollen has been preserved in situ.


Mark worked on pollen assemblages from Happisburgh, where the earliest evidence of human activity in Britain has been uncovered from c.850,000 year old sediments (for details of their publication in Nature see my previous post on what microfossils tell us about the early humans in Britain). These pollen assemblages showed the climatic setting of the finds and led to breakthroughs in the understanding of early human behaviour, adaptation and survival.


Both Mark and Tom are actively using this collection for their research by checking identifications of plant species represented by pollen in their samples. Catalogues, including 8 volumes published by the Northwest European Pollen Flora Project, provide 2-dimensional reference images of pollen but there is no substitute for examining museum reference collections like this one under a microscope. 'The collection provides the user the opportunity to look at numerous examples of an individual species present on a single slide, and review that species in multiple orientations' said Mark Lewis.



Micropalaeontologists/palynologists Steve Stukins and Tom Hill examining the Northwest European part of the pollen and spore collection in its new home in the Palaeontology Building of the Earth Science Department.


The Northwest European part of this collection is particularly well ordered thanks to Dr Peter Stafford, Palynologist at the Museum until his death in 2009 who was a major contributor to the collection and publication of the Northwest European Pollen Flora volumes. He worked with many palynologists including Mark Lewis and Prof Steve Blackmoor, former Keeper of the Botany Department. As a result it is now possible to locate examples of the pollen and spores of a named Northwest European plant with ease.




Tom in the old Botany tower examining some of the 155 folders of scanning electron microscope images of pollen and spores prior to their transfer to the Palaeontology Building.


The remainder of the 32,500 glass slide collection is currently housed in old metal drawers that do not conform to current storage standards and will need to be transferred into a cabinet next to the Northwest European collection. A start has been made by volunteers and students to rehouse the slides in special conservation grade sleeves but there is much work remaining to be done.


While I am very glad that this collection has been moved to our department, it would take me the rest of my career to carry out this task alongside the other collections management responsibilities that I have. As a result Tom Hill will shortly be advertising a couple of volunteer opportunities to help re-arrange the remaining part of this important collection.



Slides of pollen from cannabis plants housed in special conservation sleeves in the Northwest European Collection.


Finding slides from cannabis plants jogged my memory to mention that while we anticipate that Quaternary palynologists will be the main users of the collection, there are applications for this collection beyond Palaeontology. Pollen grains present in mud on shoes or in tyre treads have been used to link suspects to crime scenes. This collection has potential to act as a reference for forensic palynologists as well as those looking to study the Quaternary.


Finally a big thank you to Tom Hill, Steve Stukins and Jo Wilbraham for help with transferring this important collection from Life to Earth Sciences and to Mark Lewis for providing details of the history of the collection and his research. The collection is available to - and will hopefully continue to be used by - both Life and Earth Scientists.


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!


The new Treasures Cadogan Gallery opened at the Museum this week with an iconic specimen from the micropalaeontology collections displayed prominently in the first case you come to when entering from the left-hand-door. Just over 10 years ago, this beautiful glass model of a radiolarian made in Dresden in 1889 by father and son Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, was housed in a cardboard box and hidden behind the scenes at the Museum.


Treasures Gallery-040-231112_blog.jpg

Picture courtesy of the NHM Picture Library

Radiolarians are single celled organisms (Protozoa) that secrete tiny skeletons of opaline silica or glass so it is appropriate that the Blaschkas should re-create them in glass. They range in size from 0.03mm to 2mm and mainly have a marine solitary floating lifestyle (planktonic), although some are colonial. The model on display is enlarged approximately 1,000 times.


For some time it has been a goal to get the Museum collection of Blaschka models on permanent display so walking into the new gallery this week and seeing the Blaschka specimens finally on show was very exciting. It has been a great team effort enhancing the profile of the collection by research, publications, conference presentations, conservation, exhibition loans, CT-scanning, filming and exhibition design. Here are a series of pictures illustrating the journey of a small part of the Museum Blaschka collection from cardboard box to permanent display.


Raphidiophrys_elegans_1889_6_11_1-18k_Conservation 006_blog.jpg


We hardly dared open the cardboard boxes housing the collection of 18 radiolarians to show them to visitors for fear of breaking the glass models inside. The boxes had "S" written on the side in red to signify that they are salvage specimens to be removed from the Museum first, in the event of a disaster.


To me these glass models are real treasures, not only because of the amazing skill and artistry in their fabrication but also because they so beautifully display aspects of microscopic collections that lie hidden behind the scenes at the Museum. The radiolarian represents the only specimen from the micropalaeontology collections currently on display in the Museum galleries. The octopus and jellyfish also on display show colours and structures that are not visible in spirit collection jars and beautifully show the anatomy of each species.




The Museum holds 185 Blaschka glass models of radiolarians, amoebas, heliozoans (similar to radiolarians), squid, octopuses, cuttlefish, nautiluses, nudibranchs (soft bodied marine molluscs), corals, sea anemones and jellyfishes. The Museum collection was acquired in four stages in 1866, 1876, 1883 and 1889, representing some of the earliest and last marine invertebrates made by the Blaschkas. In 1887 they started making glass flowers for Harvard University and shortly afterwards were employed exclusively by Harvard so ceased making marine invertebrates.


Long serving members of staff recall the collection being on display in the corridor outside the current Human Biology Exhibition in the 1970s. The collection was subsequently divided between the Palaeontology and Zoology departments where it was housed in five different locations throughout the Earth and Life Science departments. Zoology curator Miranda Lowe and I first located the specimens and searched the Museum archives and Zoology specimen registers for details.


Copy of CNV00023.JPG

This image shows a list made by the Blaschkas in 1883 of the models sent to the British Museum including the octopus model on display in the Treasures Cadogan Gallery. The price (113 Reichsmarks) and relatively small size of the transport box (26 x 22 x 15 inches) are shown.
Image courtesy of the Rakow Reserach Library, Corning Museum of Glass, New York (CMGL Bib 94604.6).


Miranda and I made trips to the Blaschka archive in the Rakow Library at the Corning Museum of Glass, New York, to find out more about the history of our collections. These suggest that British Museum staff may have ordered glass taxidermy eyes from the Blaschkas in 1872 and complained when the mollusc models arrived broken in 1883.


The Corning archive also includes the original drawings from which the Blaschkas worked. They gained their inspiration by direct observation from nature and from illustrations in publications like Henry Gosse's 1860 Actinologia britannica or Ernst Haeckel's 1862 monograph on the Radiolaria (see above). The publication by Haeckel was one of the first to employ evolutionary theory to explain the distribution of organisms so it is appropriate that a copy of Darwin's On the Origin of Species is displayed next to the Blaschka models in the Treasures Cadogan Gallery.



The National Museum of Ireland copy of the radiolarian Aulosphaera elegantissima now appears on each cover of the journal Historical Biology. Reproduced with permission from Nigel Monaghan (National Museum of Ireland) and Taylor and Francis.


Blaschka experts met at a conference in Dublin in 2007 made possible by the kind benefaction of George Loudon with the support of the National Museum of Ireland. Miranda and I presented a paper on the Museum Blaschka Collection that was published the following year in the Blaschka conference proceedings.



At the time of the conference the profile of the Museum Blaschka collection had been raised both in and outside the Museum leading to several requests from other museums to display our Blaschka models in temporary exhibitions. Models were lent to the National Glass Centre in Sunderland, Sheffield Museum and displayed in temporary exhibitions at the Museum at Tring (see above) and in The Deep here at South Kensington.




Transport boxes for Blaschka models at the National Glass Centre, Sunderland. In case you were wondering, they were empty when this picture was taken. We wouldn't dream of stacking them like this if they were full!


Special cases were bought so that the models could be transported safely to and from exhibition venues. Bespoke inserts were made from layers of Plastazote™ foam and white Tyvek™ cloth to hold the items firmly in place during transport. These boxes were then transported in lorries usually employed for moving works of art between galleries.


Meanwhile, new conservation grade storage boxes for the collection were constructed initially by Felicity Bolton, then of the Museum's Palaeontology Conservation Unit. For her published work on the displayed radiolarian model, Liesa Brierley was awarded the Institute of Conservation’s Nigel Williams Prize for glass and ceramics conservation as well as a prize for the best student dissertation of 2008 at the University of Applied Sciences Erfurt, Germany.


She employed a two-stage cleaning process using a modified museum vacuum and a range of soft brushes followed by a mixture of solvents on an antistatic mini swab. She also reattached broken spines with reversible adhesive Paraloid™ B72, remounted some of the fine model strands using nylon micro-tubing and carried out initial CT-scanning of some of the models.


CT_model.jpgCT-scan of the gold centre of the displayed radiolarian not seen since the Blaschkas made the model in 1889.


Chris Collins and Effie Verventiotou of the Museum Conservation Centre in conjunction with Dr Farah Ahmed in the Museum's Imaging and Analysis Centre employed CT-scanning as well as other detailed analytical techniques to study the condition of the models. This has revealed valuable information about how the models were built, helping conservators to better understand deterioration processes and to tailor their conservation strategies.


Effie, who carried out the conservation work on the octopus and jellyfish models, remarked about the octopus, "The results of the study showed the use of animal glue and gum arabic used as coatings, adhesives and paint media. The analysis also demonstrated the use of at least two different types of glass on its construction and revealed an intricate internal structure."



Helen Walker with Effie Verventiotou and Miranda Lowe at the installation of the Blaschka case of the Treasures Cadogan Gallery.


In conjunction with museun mount maker specialist Helen Walker from the Design and Conservation Department, Effie also used these CT-scans to print 3-D mounts for the displayed specimens so that the bases of the radiolarian and octopus specimens could be perfectly supported while on display.


Light levels in the gallery are kept to a minimum and the models will be changed every 6 months to avoid light damage. The mounts are attached to granite blocks and the glass cases fixed to the underlying structure of the museum building rather than resting directly on the floorboards of the gallery to minimise the possibility of vibration damage.




Getting just three of the Museum Blaschka collection items from their cardboard boxes to permanent display has been a major undertaking involving a very large team. I just checked my Blaschka e-mail folder and it includes over 2,500 e-mails sent over 10 years by over 100 different people so apologies that I have failed to mention everyone involved.


I must have opened the Blaschka cabinet for visitors, tours and various Museum staff hundreds of times during these 10 years so I am delighted that the Museum chose and supported the work for Blaschka specimens to be part of the new gallery and available for all to see in future. Several on-line resources are available including a Treasures video on the BBC website, details of all Treasures specimens in the gallery a short Blaschka film featuring Miranda, Effie, Farah and myself (the YouTube version is also embedded below). The radiolarian and all the other Treasures in the gallery look amazing on-line but even more spectacular in real life so please visit if you can.



The Treasures Cadogan Gallery is free and open every day of the year apart from Christmas Day. As you leave, don't forget to vote for the Blaschka models as your favourite on the interactive screen situated to the left of Guy the Gorilla.


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.


On Friday 28th September the Museum is holding a Science Uncovered Event where 350 of our scientists and visiting experts will gather in the Museum galleries and outdoors in a fabulous show of displays. It's a unique opportunity to come come and find out about the latest scientific research going on here at the Museum. We'll be there with a portable scanning electron microscope investigating our microfossil zoo!




Micropalaeontologists Tom Hill, Steve Stukins and I will be part of the Imaging and Analysis table that will be situated under the globe in the Earth Galleries. We'll be looking at our newly established microfossil zoo under a portable scanning electron microscope from 16.00 until 22.00. Come and find out about the zoo and why its inhabitants are important.


Here are some taster images from the zoo that were taken by Tom and Steve last week. Science Uncovered 2012 is shaping up to be just as exciting as Science Uncovered 2011. Hope to see you there.




Postdoctoral research visitor Ceran Sekeryapan from Turkey has been studying lacustrine ostracods from our collections over the past week with the intention of adding records to the database of Non-Marine Ostracod Distribution in Europe (NODE). This database, combined with details of modern climate records and Geographical Information System (GIS) software is increasingly being used to reconstruct past air temperatures.



Cypris pubera, a freshwater ostracod (courtesy of Dr David Horne).


  • Ostracods and temperature


It has long been known that some non-marine ostracod species prefer colder while others prefer warmer climates. The Mutual Ostracod Temperature Range (MOTR) method, developed by Dr David Horne at Queen Mary University of London, calibrates each species by calculating the range of air temperatures that they can tolerate. This is done by plotting the present geographical distribution of each species and using detailed modern records of climate in these locations to calculate a seasonal air temperature range.


Other factors affect the distribution of ostracods, for example the chemisty, depth and hydrology of different water bodies harbouring ostracods.


  • Reconstructing past climates


Many species present in the modern day are also present in the Quaternary fossil record covering the last 2.5 million years. The MOTR method plots air temperature ranges of each species present in a fossil assemblage so that a mutual temperature range can be derived.




Temperature ranges of non marine ostracod species identified by Horton et al. (1992) from a Hoxnian site about 400,000 years old at Woodston, Peterborough. The mutual temperature range for the month of January is calculated and shows slightly lower mean temperatures than the present day (courtesy of Dr David Horne).




The same species are plotted for July and show temperatures similar or slightly warmer than the present, a seasonal conclusion in general agreement with studies on plant macrofossils, pollen and molluscs (courtesy of Dr David Horne).


  • Developing our collections


Ceran has been identifying species part of a large microfossil collection donated in 1991 by Prof. John Neale of the University of Hull. As well as providing new identifications and ratifying previous interpretations, she will provide new latitude and longitude references for the sites that our material has come from using a method called georeferencing. Modern maps and available resources like Google Earth are used to provide up to date latitude and longitude readings that were not present in the original data.



Coverage of Recent non marine ostracod records in the OMEGA database (courtesy of Dr David Horne).


  • The global picture


Key data from the NODE database and other large datasets from Canada, USA, southern Africa and Japan are being assembled in OMEGA (Ostracod Metadatabase of Environmental and Geographical Attributes). This will facilitate improved calibrations as well as biogeographical and biodiversity research. Details from large museum collections like ours are continually being used in this work.


  • The future


Testing and refinement of the MOTR method can only make this climate interpretation tool more accurate in the future. Ceran will be applying this method and gathering more data from sites in Turkey. Contributions to the OMEGA database are also invited as part of a citizen science project. Museum collections are also set to play a vital role in this study.


In 2011 we accepted a donation of 2,500 microscope slides containing over 90,000 ostracods from the personal collection of Prof. Richard Dingle. Richard has been visiting the Museum for almost 10 years now and has organised, documented and subsequently donated this major collection.


The material in the collection represents a lifetime of work on ostracods and underpins research that has helped illuminate some major questions in evolution, detailed the movements of ancient continents and shown patterns of migration of ostracods across oceans. Some important type specimens are also included in the collection.




One of the slides that Richard has prepared before donation to the Museum. The total length is 7cm. Each of these specimens has been positioned on the slides during visits to the Museum by Richard; a very time consuming and painstaking process.



  • The opening of the Atlantic Ocean

From the late Jurassic (very roughly 150 million years ago) the ancient continental mass of Gondwana began to split, creating the Atlantic and Indian oceans. This left the Agulhus Bank off the tip of southern Africa in a central "cross roads" location between warm and cold waters, a situation that persists to the modern day.



Richard was able to show that mid Cretaceous South African ostracod faunas were similar to those of the Falklands, indicating the presence of an Agulhus Bank/Falkland Plateau prior to the plates separating and creating the present day Atlantic Ocean.



  • How and when do ostracod species migrate across oceans?


Studying the benthic (bottom dwelling) ostracods from the Agulhus Bank enabled Richard to document the influx of Madagascan type faunas from the emerging Indian Ocean and their onward passage to South America.



Various oceanic barriers to migration existed and were subsequently bridged. The ostracod faunas were able to show the timing of the influx of south/central Atlantic faunas into the SW Indian Ocean.




Richard's work has also contributed to various theories about the migration and sometimes isolation of ostracods lineages across oceans by island hopping. The collection also shows the migration of the important genus Magungaella from pre-glacial to younger glacial high latitude sites.




  • Can evolution work in reverse?


In a nutshell, Dollo's Law suggests that once an evolutionary trait has evolved, it can't be un-evolved. Richard's collection of ostracods from Marion Island in the Southern Ocean, shows the re-appearance of eyes in deep water ostracod genera that were previousy considered blind.


Richard proposed a gene-reactivation hypothesis to account for this. The possession of eyes is key to classifying ostracods and evaluating their evolutionary history, a matter of continuing controversy amongst ostracod workers.






An example of Poseidonamicus, one of the deep sea genera of blind ostracods used by Richard Dingle to show that sightedness returned later in geological time in shallow water forms. This example is from the Aberystwyth Collection and photographed by Gene Hunt now at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington.



  • What do ostracods tell us about ancient environments and oceans?

It has been suggested that 40 million years ago there was a major global deep sea event that caused a disruption in deep sea populations. Richard's findings derived from Ocean Drilling Programme/ Deep Sea Drilling Programme collection sites, have contributed to discussions and conclusions about this ancient event.


The collection now at the Museum also provides the source data for Richard's triangulation method of palaeo-environment prediction, based on late Cretaceous (roughly 70-85 million year old) ostracods.


Similarly, Richard proposed that ostracod provinces existed around the margins of the ancient continental mass of Gondwana. Examples of these assemblages are also present in the collections he donated to the Museum.






The collection that Richard donated is vast in terms of numbers of specimens and represents a lifetime of work on ostracods. Hopefully it will be remembered not only for the large number of items present but also for the excellent science it backs up. More about Richard Dingle's Collection and his work can be found in a paper published this month in the Journal of Micropalaeontology.


The Museum radiolarian collection makes up considerably less than 1% of the total microfossil collection but is proving very popular at the moment. Last February we loaned some slides to accompany an exhibition by Irene Kopelman at the Gasworks Gallery and this week I processed a loan for Artist/PhD Researcher Gemma Anderson. Glass models of radiolarians made in 1889 by the father and son partnership of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka are also being prepared for something special that will be happening later in the year at the Museum.



A scanning electron microscope image of part of the fossil radiolarian residue on loan to Gemma Anderson. The tip of a standard 0.65mm diameter dressmaking pin is included for scale.


Radiolarians are single celled organisms (Protozoa) that secrete tiny skeletons of opaline silica. They are present in the oceans of today from the tropics to the Arctic and live anywhere from near the surface to depths of several hundred metres. They range in size from 0.03mm to 2mm and mainly have a solitary floating lifestyle (planktonic), although some are colonial.


The living cell that produces the skeleton consists of a central mass of cytoplasm surrounded by a peripheral layer called the extracapsulum. Sometimes the extracapsulum contains bubble like structures that aid flotation and occasionally algal symbionts. The cells also produce radiating fine structures called axopodia. In some species these are contractile and may have been used to move organic particles closer to the extracapsulum for digestion.


Fine strands called fusules connect the extracapsulum with the inner capsule and these are unique to the Radiolaria. Modern radiolarians are subdivided based on the microanatomy of the central capsule whereas fossil forms are classified on skeletal characteristics. The living and fossil classification schemes are not intergrated as a result.



A Blaschka glass model of the radiolarian Aulosphaera elegantissima Haeckel, 1862. The central mass of cytoplasm, the axiopoda and the spherical silica shell are magnified about 500 times and reproduced in glass.


A collection of 18 radiolarian and heliozoan Blaschka glass models were acquired by the Museum in 1889. The Blaschkas made 10 different varieties of Radiolaria representing two of the three main subdivisions. They also offered three varieties of Heliozoa (literally sun animals). These look superficially like radiolarians but differ in the arrangement of the pseudo/axo-podia and the cellular structure in the central capsulum.


The illustration of A. elegantissima in Ernst Haeckel's 1862 monograph on the Radiolaria that provded the inspiration for their work.


Radiolarians are very beautiful to look at but are also scientifically significant. The have a long geological record stretching back more than 500 million years to the Cambrian Period. This makes them very useful for determining the age of sedimentary rocks that contain them as well as giving details of past climates and oceanographic conditions.


The Museum's radiolarian collection of 1,500 slides is small but historically very significant. Ernst Haeckel described 2,775 new radiolarian species in his 1887 monograph on the Challenger radiolarians [PDF] but did not define any type specimens. A set of teaching slides made by Haeckel in the Museum collection is the only set of plankton slides available from the Challenger Expedition. Residues in the Ocean Bottom Sediment Collection also contain important comparative specimens that help define Haeckel's species concepts in the absense of type specimens.




A close up of part of the radiolarian residue on loan to Gemma Anderson. It is from Miocene Barbados Marl which is roughly 15 million years old.


It will be very interesting to see the results of Gemma's study; I will comment on this blog with any details. I would also be very excited to see a Blaschka radiolarian model on display in the Museum galleries. I promise a more detailed post on the Museum Blaschka Collection in the future with a very interesting story involving a team of archivists, curators, conservators and exhibition staff (with some C-T scanning too).


The quick answer is anything from less than one pence to several thousands of pounds. The value of a specimen depends on a number of factors; market value, recollection value, as well as its historical and scientifical significance. Valuations are needed for insurance purposes before we loan specimens for exhibitions or to scientists. Here are some thoughts on how to put a monetary value on microfossils.



  • Why value?


When I first came to the Museum I was told that we don’t do valuations. I sometimes had to stand in for the enquiries officer and usually someone would phone up or come in with a specimen and ask us 'how much is it worth?' or 'would we like to buy it'? Saying that we didn't do valuations was a convenient policy to maintain a consistent approach.


Things have changed and now, before we loan for exhibitions or for any other reason, we do a valuation because the loanee is required to provide insurance during the loan period.


Occasionally colleagues visit professional dealer fairs where specimens are for sale and need to know what is a good price before buying new specimens.


Sometimes it is important to remind funding bodies about the value of the collections in our care. If you place a completely arbitrary figure of £20 on each specimen in our department, the contents of our building is worth an estimated £180 million!



  • Is there a market value?


I didn’t think there was a market for microfossils. However, a recent Google search threw up a banner on the right hand side saying ‘Buy Microfossils’. Of course I couldn’t resist following the link and found that you can buy a whole jar of sand including literally thousands of microfossils for £1.49 – significantly less than one pence per individual specimen.


A recent search on eBay found that you can buy examples of the microfossil Nummulites for 99p.The two examples I have given are for items that are very common. What if the specimens are less easy to replace?



  • How easy is it to find another one?


One way to put a valuation on a microfossil is to work out how much it would cost to collect another one. If taken literally this could place enormous values on specimens, for example - it would cost millions of pounds to drill another offshore oil well.


I recently had to value some slides for an exhibition at the Gasworks Gallery that had been collected from the Antarctic Ocean. The temptation was to calculate how much it would cost to mount a new trip there to find more material. However, other trips to the same area have been carried out since then so we should be able to source equivalent material. The valuation therefore took into account obtaining these residues and paying a technician to make up new slides.


This makes it important to record details of collecting costs when participating in fieldwork so that valuations can be carried out more easily. This should take into account time spent in the laboratory and cost of consumables like chemicals used. As a result, it would be relatively easy to value of each slide created by Tim Potter from our field trip to the Welsh Borderland.


Sometimes collecting sites may no longer exist because they have become overgrown or are inaccessible for other reasons. In these instances, additional value can be assigned to these specimens.


Some species in the £1.49 jar of microfossils may be 10 to a penny but for others there may be only one example in the jar. Time taken for an expert to look through the residue under a microscope and provide an identification should also be built into any valuation in this instance. A rare specimen in this jar may well be worth far more than £1.49 as a result.



Some bottles rich in microfossils from the Ocean Bottom Residue Collection. The material cannot be collected again, has historical significance and is certainly worth a great deal more than £1.49. An individual specimen on a slide derived from one of these residues may not be worth as much as we can easily find a replacement from these bottles.



  • How does the history of a specimen affect its value?


Some specimens have considerable historical value as they were collected by famous scientists. As a rule of thumb, valuations are roughly doubled in these instances. Some leeway is needed here. If a 1p microfossil had been collected by Darwin, clearly it would be worth a bit more than 2p!



  • What is its scientific significance?


Type specimens will obviously be worth more than others. Other specimens that may not have been published can also have added value. For example, we have some specimens from boreholes drilled when they were exploring the site of the channel tunnel. These have added scientific and historical value.



Although it is sad for me to think that some of my specimens are worth less than one pence, there are many in the collection that are worth much more based on replacement value. A fine example is to consider the billions of pounds that BP must have spent acquiring the microfossil collection that we now hold.


If you see microfossils or microfossil collections for sale, I'd love to hear from you. This can help me to provide accurate valuations in the future.


I have just said goodbye to retired curator Richard Hodgkinson who left the Museum 54 years after taking up a junior position here. His knowledge of the microfossil collection is second to none. Another colleague Andy Currant is about to retire after more than 40 years of service. Can we replace this sort of specialist knowledge? As the curator of a collection of over a million objects that is consulted regularly by scientists, I would argue that specialist curators are vital. Here are 10 points illustrating why.


First I'll start with my definition of a specialist curator. This is someone who has in depth knowledge about the collections in their care, an appreciation of their significance and a working knowledge of the external community likely to use them. Some curators publish research papers on their own areas of expertise but I'm not including that in my definition. Nobody in the world is an expert on the range of subjects that micropalaeontology covers!


  1. Databasing
    The million plus items in my collections are unlikely to be databased individually during my lifetime. Some knowledge of the relative importance of different parts of the collection helps decide on priorities so limited databasing resources are used to their best potential. Updating identifications of our specimens is also important so knowing 'who is publishing what' can pay dividends.
  2. Conservation
    As with databasing, important decisions need to be made on what needs conserving. Conservation is one of the main remits of the museum and is vital to maintaining the heritage locked up in our collections. Having someone to argue scientifically why something needs conserving helps to prioritise conservation projects.
  3. Enquiries
    It's important to provide accurate information to enquirers. While useful information can be gleaned from Museum card indexes and registers, these rarely include historical details. I've been here for 18 years now and have a pretty good feel for the microfossil collections but I still occasionally rely on retired members of staff to point me in the right direction with an interesting anecdote or two.
  4. Media
    Some of my fellow curators are always being called on to make statements about news articles related to their subject. Meteorites, human fossils or dinosaurs are in the news every week. These high profile judgements emphasise why the Museum is important and the public expect such authoritive statements from specialists at the Museum. OK I hear you say - micropalaeontology rarely makes it to the news. That is one of the reasons why I decided to start this blog!
  5. Loans
    Before our collections are sent out on loan we need to make judgements on their travel suitability and value for insurance purposes. Sometimes loanees want to carry out destructive techniques on the specimens so curators have to advise senior managers about whether these should be allowed.
  6. Disaster and risk management
    We know where our most important specimens are so they can be rescued in the event of a disaster (fire, flood, earthquake). You would think a specialist curator is not required if we have lists already. However, I came to work last Monday morning to find my second floor office and part of the collections area outside flooded. This is strange because I am two floors below the roof! Knowledge of the collections present in the affected cabinets was vital to quickly dealing with the issue. Some people think that databasing all our collections is the answer to replacing specialist curators but this would not have helped in this instance.
  7. Acquisitions
    Should we acquire a collection or not? Knowledge of collectors and their history is useful as is knowledge of the site where it was collected. My experience is that having a specialist on the books also encourages donations. Specialists build up relationships with potential donors, enhancing the value of the present collections by encouraging new donations.
  8. Exchanges and disposals
    These follow the same principles as acquisitions but in reverse. I've heard several horror stories over the years where collections or specimen related documentation have ended up on the skip because the people disposing of them had no idea of their value. Many curators can't bear to think that their collections should be disposed of or exchanged. However, these projects are neccessary so some knowledge of value is essential before disposal decisions are made.
  9. Visits
    People come from all over the world to visit our collections sometimes at vast personal expense. Before planning a trip they need to know for certain that we have collections that suit their specialist needs. Sometimes we need to encourage use of our collections from relevant external stakeholders. I am glad that my colleagues Tom and Steve have been brought in specifically to help me with this remit.
  10. Education
    Educational activities include roadshows like the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival, public speaking e.g. Nature Live or input to displays in the galleries of the Museum. Without specialist knowledge, specimens can be poorly interpreted or interesting stories not brought to public attention. All of these activities make the specimens more relevant to members of the public.


So you can tell that as a specialist curator I'm in favour of them. No surprise there. I'm not criticising non-specialists either. In these days of austerity, curatorial support is becoming stretched increasingly thinly and staff expected to cover wider subject areas. The days of a person like Richard Hodgkinson staying their entire career in one museum job on one subject may be over but it does not pay to overlook the importance of specialist curatorial knowledge.


If you are interested to join in the discussion on this subject, my colleague Dr Tim Ewin is taking part in a question and answer session entitled "In defence of the curator" at the Open Culture event on 27th June at the Kia Oval in London.


Every quarter we are required to provide numbers of visitors, enquiries and loans to show how the collections are being used. These are passed to the Museum Trustees and subsequently the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) as a performance indicator to help justify the expense of maintaining such an amazing collection.


At the Museum a new loan type - Surrogate Loan - has just appeared on the horizon to record when we send images of our specimens rather than loaning the specimens themselves. Usually I would sigh and say something under my breath about having too much administration. However, as someone who deals with a lot of images of my collection I'm really glad. Recording surrogate loans gives us and the managers who allocate Museum collections management resources a really useful indication of how much the microfossil collection is being used.


Below are a few images I have sent out recently as surrogate loans along with a few comments about them and how they are being used.



This is the ostracod Lophocythere caesa britannica from the Jurassic (about 160 million years ago) of the UK. The scanning electron microscope picture was taken by me for Prof. Robin Whatley, now retired from University College Aberystwyth, University of Wales. Prof. Whatley has donated a large number of specimens to the Museum during his career and is putting together an extensive publication describing some of them. Robin can't travel easily so his wife Caroline Maybury has been amazingly helpful in preparing the material in our collections for imaging and putting the specimens away afterwards. We would certainly not have sent that many specimens out on loan because they are too fragile and important reference specimens.




This is an image of the conodont Distomodus staurognathoides from the Silurian (about 425 million years ago) of Iran. It is part of donation by Dr Vachik Hairapetian who has provided us with some very interesting material in recent years. Some of it has been published or like this specimen, is in the process of being published. Conodonts from this area of the world are largely undescribed so it is important that this material is recorded as their occurrences can help with future geological interpretations of the region.




This an extreme close up of a piece of chalk from the Sevens Sisters in Kent taken by my former colleague Jeremy Young. It shows tiny rings of calcareous nannoplankton called coccoliths and was sent to artists Francisco Queimadela and Mariana Calo who visited in February. This followed an open day of the micropalaeontology collections associated with an exhibition at the Gasworks Gallery at the Oval, London. They are also doing an exhibition at the Gasworks Gallery.



This is another ostracod, this time from the Coralline Crag of Norfolk donated in 2011 by Dr Adrian Wood of Coventry University. I took scanning electron microscope images of all the specimens in his donation to help with his publications on ostracods from East Anglia. Adrian has been very helpful in preparing the specimens for accession to our collections by labelling slides and providing electronic data that can be easily incorporated into our database.


Throughout my career as a curator I have sent a lot of specimen images to enquirers so I'm very glad that this practise in now being recorded as a performance indicator. Hurrah for surrogate loans!


Making a reference collection, taking high quality images of key species, identifying them and publishing the images on the web and in peer reviewed scientific articles are all ways in which expertise can be locked up in the Museum collections. NHM Scientific Associate Tim Potter has been doing just this during his time at the Museum. He studies acritarchs which are an enigmatic group of organic plankton that are present in marine rocks up to 3 billion years old.



Some Lower Palaeozoic acritarch images created by Museum Scientific Associate Tim Potter. In general acritarchs range from about 5 to 200 micro meters.


Although we don't know exactly what acritarchs are (the name means unknown origin), they are very important organisms as many are probably primary producers and therefore could be responsible for generating oceanic organic carbon in some of the earliest oceans including the Cambrian Period roughly 500 million years ago. The Cambrian Period was an exciting time for the development of life with many strange organisms arriving and subsequently becoming extinct during the 'Cambrian Explosion' of life. Like many microfossil groups, the acritarchs have potential for dating rocks and subsequently the timing of some of these important events.


Acritarchs can also tell us about conditions in some of these ancient oceans; periods of glaciation and major oceanic carbon fluctuations are known to have occurred. Carbon isotopic studies of rocks suggest that the global carbon cycle was disrupted in the late Cambrian about 500 million years ago with increased carbon in the oceans at this time. This is referred to as the SPICE event but the link between this event and acritarch diversity is yet to be proven.


Tim studied acritarchs of Cambrian age for his PhD prior to a long career with Shell. After retiring he decided to publish the findings of his thesis and came to the museum to update his identifications using the amazing resources we hold like the John Williams Index of Palaeopalynology. In February, Tim published a key paper on acritarchs with co-authors Susanne Feist-Burkhardt and Museum PhD student Brian Pedder, expanding on work done by Brian for his masters project.

Fieldwork_Ludlow_ 055_blog.jpg


Tim Potter, Brian Pedder and Susanne Feist-Burkhardt lined up by chance 'in publication name order' in the Welsh Borderland during a collecting trip for acritarchs.


Back in 2007, Tim, Susanne, Brian and myself carried out fieldwork specifically to collect samples to fill gaps in the Museum acritarch collections and to support Museum research that was being undertaken at the time. This fieldwork covered classic sites in the Lower Palaeozoic of the Welsh Borderland from the Cambrian to Silurian periods roughly 500-420 million years ago.


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Tim Potter collecting a sample from the bottom of a stream near Comley, Shropshire. There are very few exposures of Cambrian rocks in the world and in the UK you have to search hard to find potential sampling sites. This is not an uncommon situation for Lower Palaeozoic fieldwork in the Welsh Borderland!


To obtain acritarchs from the rock samples collected, laboratory processing using nasty acids like hydroflouric acid is neccessary. It is not a particularly strong acid but it is deadly as it dissolves pretty much everything apart from the organic constituents of rocks. Splash a bit on yourself and you would not last long! A laboratory with special fume cupboards and much protective clothing is neccessary for processing samples safely. Fortunately for Tim, these samples were expertly prepared by technician Jonah Chitolie.


Once processed, the residues were analysed by Tim and single specimens picked out so that they could be mounted and viewed on glass slides. Because the specimens are so small, this is a particularly fiddly technique that requires a lot of patience. Most slides of acritarchs are strew mounts; a small amount of processed organic sample is pressed and cemented between two glass slides using resins like Canada Balsam. For these types of slides, an assemblage is preserved rather than a single indentifable specimen.





Some images of acritarchs from the Museum database.


The single grain slides that Tim produced have been photographed and the details and photographs released on the web via our specimen registration system. Tim has been happy with the identifications of most of the Cambrian specimens but would welcome comments on identifications of some of the younger Ordovician and Silurian examples. The Museum database is able to record re-identifications. It is hoped that other experts will log onto this resource and suggest alternative indentifications or back up the published indentifications, further increasing the value of this resource.




The Palaeontology Department on-line specimen database search screen


To find these details, log onto our specimen database system and choose 'acritarchs' in the drop down list for 'fossil group' and click the box for 'images only' (as above). Tim is constantly adding more material to the collections so hopefully in the years to come this will develop into a very useful resource for students of acritarchs and help to ensure that important expertise is not lost.


Postscript. As I was writing this I was sent details of a PhD studentship on acritarchs based at the University of Lille, France.

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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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