Shelf Life 06: The Tiniest Fossils
BUSHRA HUSSAINI (Senior Museum Specialist, Division of Paleontology): I was fascinated when I saw them under the microscope. I was fascinated by the structures, the different orientations. Just they’re absolutely beautiful. So, I found forams interesting from a purely aesthetic point of view. But now I’m hooked. Because I see how important they are.
I am Bushra Hussaini and I take care of the fossil invertebrate collection.
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ELLEN THOMAS (Senior Research Scientist, Earth and Planetary Science, Yale University): Micropaleontology just means small paleontology—fossil objects that are so small that you cannot really study them with the naked eye.
I’m Ellen Thomas and I’m a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History.
I myself study foraminifera. By far, by very far, the most species of foraminifera live on the sea floor. Your average period after a sentence on a piece of paper is a nice size for a foram. They are unicellular organisms, which belong in that large group of things called Protista, which are not animals. Although my husband always calls them “beasties.”
What we recognize as foraminifera goes back about 650 million years ago. The interesting thing is that although foraminifera are only one cell, they make shells. That’s what, of course, makes it possible for them to become fossilized.
NEIL LANDMAN (Curator, Division of Paleontology): We have a very important foram collection here, because in the mid-20th century, the American Museum was the focus of foram studies.
I’m Neil Landman and I’m a curator in the Division of Paleontology.
Forams reflect environmental changes. They’re very sensitive indicators of environmental change.
THOMAS: One way in which foraminifera can tell us something is by chemical analysis of the shells. We can look at the isotopic composition of the oxygen and the carbon and trace element concentrations in the shell. That means that we can say things about direct temperature of the past. It can tell us sort of the size of the polar ice caps. It can tell us something about how much photosynthesis was going on in the surface of the ocean. And that can tell us something about the CO2 levels in the atmosphere.
If you look at reconstructions of climate, if you just look at climate change in Wikipedia, for instance, then you’ll see wiggly lines that tell you something about the climate of, say, the last 70 to 100 million years or so. Those wiggly lines are all derived from the analysis of foraminifera.
I hope you’re impressed by foraminifera.
LANDMAN: So, we have this very important foram collection that was developed in the mid-20th century and, you know, everything changes and curators come and go. And so, it’s really our obligation to rehouse and recurate the collection of microfossils, because it’s so important.
THOMAS: Scientists here at the Museum in cooperation with me started to write a proposal to the National Science Foundation.
HUSSAINI: So, we received a grant. The main goal of this project is to rehouse the specimen slides. The other objective is to create a digital catalog— you know, enter them into a database, photograph them, and then also to create about 50 CT scans.
SHAUN MAHMOOD (Curatorial Assistant, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences): Forams are cool because they’re such tiny objects, yet they have so many complex features. You can see something the size of a grain of rice suddenly has a hundred chambers that you didn’t even know were there.
I’m Shaun Mahmood. I was part of a group of interns working on the microfossil digitization and rehousing project.
So, we had to come up with some way to scan something so tiny. It’s quite difficult to mount these specimens because if you poke it too hard with the brush it will actually shatter.
So, now we have the specimen in the pipette tip and we want to drop it in this little vial. We label and bag the specimen. And we take this off to the CT lab and they’ll scan it for us.
The way that a CT scanner works is it will create these 2D slices that we put together and create a 3D object of that specimen.
HUSSAINI: We had this one specimen, you know, that on the outside looked like it was completely eroded and we just didn’t think you would be able to see anything. But we CT scanned it, and lo and behold, the internal structure was absolutely beautiful.
MAHMOOD: We can extract the 3D model and make it available for researchers to observe, make measurements, and everything that you would with a normal specimen. We can print out a 3D object. Instead of it being a tenth of a millimeter, we can actually have something that will fit in the palm of your hand.
THOMAS: Our project in rehousing the collection has been amazingly important because what we can do with the geological past is say, “Okay, Nature has made those experiments. It has done global warming.” Okay, let’s use Earth’s history and foraminifera in the Earth’s history to learn how life on Earth reacted to those events in the past, to help to predict how we are dealing with the future.
What we can do with the geological past is use Earth’s history to learn how life reacted to events in the past, to help to predict how we are dealing with the future.
- Ellen Thomas, Micropaleontologist
Whether it’s insight into the anatomy of an ancient animal or the ecology of plants that died out eons ago, fossils can offer up a vast array of information.
The video in this episode of Shelf Life explores the Museum’s fossil collection of tiny marine organisms known as foraminifera or—when even scientists admit six syllables is a mouthful—forams. These are abundant, widely-scattered, single-celled creatures that still fill oceans today. The fossilized shells left behind by their foram ancestors are widely used as time capsules for ancient climate data.
When forams were first discovered, their intricate forms were mistaken for another kind of marine organism—the long-extinct group of animals known as ammonites. While the forams’ chambered shells function in very different ways than those of the ammonites, they both contain climate clues.
Ammonites are a group of ancient mollusks related to modern animals like nautiluses, which most closely resemble their extinct cousins, squid, and octopuses. Like forams, ammonites were a phenomenally successful group, branching out into a wide variety of distinct species and diverse forms all over the world's oceans, where they endured for more than 300 million years. They also had hard shells—most frequently coiled, though some species sported spiral helices and U-shaped shells—and hard jaws, an extraordinary number of which survived as fossils. The Museum's invertebrate fossil collection, one of the largest in the world, has more than 2 million ammonite specimens. (The recently accessioned Mapes Collection of marine fossils, which pushed the Museum's total holdings past 33 million specimens and artifacts last year, added about 150,000 more.)
Their abundance, broad geographic distribution, and a lengthy but limited stay on the planet make ammonites very useful markers of geologic time. They're also great indicators of ancient climate. Ammonite shells and jaws consist mostly of calcium carbonate, the same substance that makes up the tiny shells of foraminifera. Depending on the temperature of the surrounding water when it forms, calcium carbonate contains different amounts of two oxygen isotopes. The ratio of these isotopes, says Neil Landman, curator in the Division of Paleontology, make the shells “very sensitive indicators of the environments and temperatures in which they were formed.” And since shells from one period can be compared against those from another, they can be used to track changes in climates over time.
Ammonite shells could provide other clues about the ancient world as well. The fossil record shows that the first ammonites appeared during the Devonian period, around 400 million years ago. After thriving in ancient oceans for hundreds of millions of years, nearly all ammonites fell victim to the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous period that also wiped out the dinosaurs and more than half the species on the planet.
“Ammonites are everywhere toward the end of the Cretaceous period,” says Landman. “There’s no decrease in the number of individuals or the number of species leading up to their sudden disappearance.”
Their vanishing act can tell us more about the event that killed off so many forms of life, which is why Landman studies ammonite fossils that occur at the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K/Pg) boundary—the thin slice of geologic time immediately after the extinction.
This slice is found in just a few dozen places around the world, including sites in Morocco where Landman and colleagues traveled on a recent Constantine S. Niarchos expedition. Working with local geologists and university professors, Landman and other Museum paleontologists conducted the first big survey for ammonites around the K/Pg boundary in sedimentary rock layers on Morocco’s eastern coast. The result was a treasure trove of fossilized ammonites.
“We knew ammonites existed in this area,” Landman says. “But there is not much information known or published about them in this site.” The new specimens from the Moroccan expedition are still being studied, and Landman expects several papers will come out of the research. In addition to ammonites, the team gathered new specimens of foraminifera to add to the Museum’s collection and looked at levels of the element iridium, which was scattered across Earth during the meteorite impact, in samples of surrounding sediment.
Previous studies of ammonites have produced one consistent finding with implications for ocean life today. On the Cretaceous side of the K/Pg Boundary, ammonites are plentiful, while related nautilids are less common. After the extinction event, ammonites mostly disappear, while nautilid populations persist, largely unaffected. Their fates, Landman suggests, could have been clinched by the animals’ respective life cycles.
Ammonites hatched very small—less than a millimeter in diameter for some species—and would have made their homes among plankton and similar creatures in warm surface waters. Nautilids, meanwhile, were born larger and would have spent more time in deeper waters. If a meteorite impact caused rapid acidification of surface waters around the world, as some suggest, that would explain why ammonites, which used those waters as a kind of crib, would have been devastated, while young nautilids could have soldiered on through the catastrophe, sheltered in deeper water. (Deep-sea forams, known as benthic foraminifera, similarly weathered this extinction more successfully than surface-skimming planktonic foraminifera species, which were mostly wiped out at the end of the Cretaceous, then made a comeback in the early Miocene).
As today’s oceans become increasingly acidic due to climate change, learning more about the ammonite extinction is more than an academic concern. The details of the catastrophe that struck 65 million years ago could inform how we deal with similar environmental issues in the modern era.
“Calcium carbonate shells on modern animals are getting thinner, and some evidence suggests the calcium carbonate spikes of sea urchins are getting smaller as well,” Landman says. “Understanding how ocean acidity affects marine species is very pertinent to where we are today.”