Tuesday 22 June 2010

More Cuts In Palaeontology

When I was an undergraduate, there was one subject that could fill me with dread (at least once I'd dropped all the hard rock geology and left myself the option of working on nice, soft rock stuff). It was micropalaeontology. I despised the practicals. The only thing that made spending two hours picking those pissy little foraminifera (forams) up with a moistened paintbrush bearable was knowing that the next week I'd be able to watch them being crushed up and shoved through a mass spectrometer. Result.

It took some time for their significance to sink in. But to put it very simply, forams in particular are very good at telling us about the environment in which they were living. The proportions of 13C and 12C, and the proportions of 18O and 16O, which they absorb as they form their shells, are related to the temperature of the water at that time. You want to know what the deep ocean temperature was? You need to pick out species of benthic forams. What about the surface temperature? Find certain species of pelagic forams. It's okay, you can crush them up later in revenge. Some species only lived in shallow seas. Some species only lived below a certain depth.

Microfossils are essential if we are to understand past climates and environments and to react to how our climate is changing at the moment. And although it makes me sick up a bit to say it, microfossils are more important than dinosaurs in terms of the range of information obtained and their use to different geoscience disciplines. Sorry dinosaurs. You're still more awesome.

How do you tell the difference between them all? Buggered if I know. That's why there are micropalaeontologists. And they are ace. Not only because they can pick forams (and count the little buggers) for twelve-hour shifts if necessary, when I was bellyaching after half an hour of staring down the microscope, but because they can look at two seemingly identical blobs less than 1mm across and tell which one is Globigerina bulloides and which one is Globigerina glutinata...

Images from University of Southampton

So it is distressing to see that the Natural History Museum is closing its Micropalaeontology Division. It was announced just under a fortnight ago via the PaleoNet listserver. It's also troubling to see that the person who made the decision is Norm MacLeod, the Palaeontology Department Keeper, who is... a micropalaeontologist.

There is a Facebook group. There is a petition (doing pretty well at 1069 signatures as of the point where I signed). Can widespread dismay across the community do anything to reverse the decision? Really, can any action do anything to reverse the decision? I'm hoping so, which is why I'm posting these links. I have, on a good day, over 250 subscribers. If you all kicked up a fuss, that would add a decent amount of weight to the campaign.


  1. I went and read the petition... as a US resident and citizen, and not a professional scientist, would my signature have any value?

  2. I would say it would have value - there are plenty of international signatures on there. You are also an educated person who sees the significance of micropalaeontology as a field of research. I'd certainly expect your signature to have no less significance than mine! ;)

  3. 1076!

    I don't like invert. palaeontology, but I love picking forams! I find it oddly soothing.

  4. My former uncle-in-law (if there is such a thing) was the curator of micropalaeontology at the Smithsonian (Marty Buzas, now retired) and he showed me my first real fossils - foraminifera. Before that I had only stared longingly at fossils through glass cases in museums. Marty tried to talk me into working with forams instead of dinosaurs, but I resisted. All these years later, I guess I kind of conceded since I'm working on microvertebrates. LOL! Forams are an important part of the fossil record and deserve to be studied for the reasons you state in your post. Count me in on the petition. Hopefully an American studying in Canada and signing an English petition will count. : )

  5. 1197.

    It took me years to get someone to do the diatom work that has been critical to working out the age and environment of my vertebrate site.

  6. Regarding your shared item on electricity (July 04)... sadly, it's fer real. The hair dryer photo is shopped, but the overall image- including text- is a scan from a 4th grade text from Bob Jones university. Pharyngula has the original image in a post a couple of days ago. If you don't follow that blog, it's one you might like; he can get under my skin, and frequently does, but it's worth it, overall.

  7. Oooh, I've tried sticking with Pharyngula before, and just couldn't stomach it all. But that is disgraceful text.

    Thanks everyone who signed the petition - I hope it makes someone take notice!


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