Help scientists learn secrets of ancient seas

28 April 2017

Thin rock section of miscellanid forams

Magnified slice of rock containing foraminifera called miscellaneids. Fossils like these are an invaluable resource, helping researchers investigate ancient ocean conditions and the impact of climate change.

A new Museum crowdsourcing project is asking the public to help digitise scientific data about some of the world's smallest fossils, which hold clues to how ocean conditions have changed over millions of years.

Miniature Fossils Magnified launches today at the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival in Dorset. The project is part of the Museum's efforts to make its internationally important collection more widely available for scientific research and focuses on the foraminifera slide collection.

The slides feature fossils of single-celled organisms called foraminifera, or forams for short, embedded in slices of rock.

Foraminifera are found in both modern and ancient marine environments and preserve well thanks to hard shells called tests.

The foraminifera specimens in the Miniature Fossils Magnified project lived in shallow tropical seas from 500 million years ago to the present day.

More than 5,000 microscope slides have been digitally imaged so far. Now the Museum needs as many people as possible to help transcribe the information on the specimen labels - such as the species name, location of where the sample material came from and its geological age - so that the data can be used for scientific research.

The project was set up by Dr Stephen Stukins and Dr Giles Miller, senior curators of micropalaeontology, and Science Community Coordinator Margaret Gold.

Dr Stukins says, 'These fossilised organisms were very sensitive to their environment, so with this data we can better understand past conditions in the oceans and climate change through time.

'All of this knowledge can be applied to what is happening now and in the future, giving us a better understanding of how our climate and oceans are changing.'

Miscellanea miscella foraminifera fossils

The Museum has digitally imaged more than 5,000 slides of large benthic foraminifera, including this slice of rock containing Miscellanea miscella. We need your help to transcribe the information on 2,000 slide labels.
 

Ocean organisms with a tale to tell

Foraminifera are among the most abundant shelled organisms in our oceans. A cubic centimetre of sediment may hold hundreds of living individuals, and many more shells.

Some forams spend their lives floating in the ocean. When they die, they sink to the seafloor and gradually become buried in sediment. Others - benthic foraminifera - live on or near the seafloor.

The Miniature Fossils Magnified project features a collection of large benthic foraminifera.

Their sizes range from a few tens of microns in diameter - like a small grain of sand - to several centimetres across.

Close-up image of Nummulites gizehensis

Many foraminifera measure less than a millimetre in diameter, but those in the Nummulites group are particularly large. Nummulites gizehensis, shown here, usually grew to 2-3 centimetres in diameter. The shell was still only inhabited by a single-celled organism.
 

The material was collected during the mid-twentieth century during oil exploration in the Middle East. The scientists involved in dating rocks described many new foraminifera species and the slides were later given to the Museum due to their scientific value.

The data on the slide labels are invaluable. Analysing them can help us to understand how our climate and sea levels have changed, and also tell us the geological history of the area in which they were found.

A record of ancient environments

Foraminifera shells are often divided into chambers and can be quite elaborate, although simple open tube or hollow sphere forms exist.

Daviesina danieli foram magnified

In this image of Daviesina danieli the chambers of the shell are very obvious
 

Because of the abundance and variety of foraminifera, their fossils are extremely important for dating rocks.

They also provide a record of the environment where they're found. Sea level and temperature changes affect the diversity and population sizes of foraminifera species, as well as the growth of individuals, impacting their size. Studying fossil foraminifera can therefore help scientists to understand past conditions.

Scientists can also study fossils from known periods of change to observe how foraminifera responded to particular climate and ocean conditions. If we then see similar changes to foraminfera living on tropical reefs in the future, this can help scientists to deduce how quickly the changes are happening and predict what may happen.

People-powered science

Dr Miller says, 'The Museum collection of larger benthic foraminifera is one of the most significant in the world but is little used because much of it remains undigitised.

'By helping to digitise this collection, you will keep it relevant for scientific studies long into the future.'

Join in now at Miniature Fossils Magnified or come and see the Museum team at the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival.

The team will be showcasing the project, along with our free Fossil Explorer app, fossil specimens and other treasures from the Museum collection. They will also be answering questions and running activities and simple experiments for visitors to try.

Making the Museum collection accessible to all

Miniature Fossils Magnified is the latest initiative that's part of the Museum's Digital Collections Programme, which is working towards digitising all 80 million natural history specimens in the collection.

Museum staff digitising a louse specimen

A Museum digitiser imaging one of the Museum louse collection microscope slides
 

Researchers, citizen scientists and data analysts from all over the world can access the digitised specimen data online through the Museum's Data Portal. More than 3.5 million specimen records have been made available to date, with around 99,000 users downloading over a billion records in the past 12 months.

Following pilot projects to optimise the digitisation of different types of collection, the Museum louse collection is currently being digitised at a rate of around 1,000 microscope slides per day.

The public are playing a key role in helping to digitise particular collections.

Young people transcribing specimen labels

Participants in a Museum crowdsourcing project transcribe specimen labels at an event
 

Margaret Gold, who helps to run Museum crowdsourcing projects, says, 'Many of the historical specimens at the Museum were collected by "amateur experts" - people without formal scientific training who nonetheless made a huge contribution to our knowledge of the natural world.

'The Museum continues this tradition by inviting the public to contribute to our scientific research in a variety of ways, including the crowdsourcing of specimen label transcription.

'Volunteers taking part in our Digital Collections Programme via the Notes from Nature platform have already made a huge contribution - completing more than 14,000 labels.'

  • By Lisa Hendry

Related information

Related information

Lyme Regis Fossil Festival

Join a Museum team at the festival from 28-30 April 2017.

Examine Museum specimens, sieve and identify shark teeth and shells from a 54-million-year-old fossil bed, see how volcanoes form and erupt, and more.

Fossil Explorer app

Identify fossils based on where you find them with this field guide to the common fossils of Britain. Available for iOS and Android devices.

Discover more