This is why forams rule – no, really

Ok, my third blog post.. it’s time to talk about some of what I am interested in when it comes to science, I think.

Luckily, I just found this wonderful video on youtube, which I’ll use for illustration and to warm up:
Quinqueloculina moving

The video shows a specimen from the widely distributed, benthic (i.e. occurring on the seafloor) genus of the Foraminifera (short: forams) called Quinqueloculina. The foram is the dark shape in the middle, and what you see all around it – moving! – is the protozoan’s pseudopodial network.

What really drew me into working on forams was the ‘underdog appeal’- the lowly status which I felt, and still feel, foraminifera have when it comes to their biology. The group is probably most known for being used as paleoceanographic proxies for things such as temperature, oxygen concentrations and productivity levels in ancient oceans.

Forams are useful for this because they have been around for a very long time (hundreds of millions of years – a tad longer than my attention span), occur everywhere in the world’s oceans and provide an excellent fossil record in marine sediments. Two of the most commonly used proxies are carbon and oxygen stable isotope ratios in the shells of calcareous species. Carbon and oxygen isotopes get assimilated into the foram shell during growth according to their availability, which in turn reflects environmental conditions at the time the foram was alive. In many cases, foram fossil records from ocean sediment cores are what people talk about when they tell you that certain areas of the oceans used to be more or less productive (i.e. more phytoplankton growing), or that water temperatures were different.

Well, this is not what piqued my interest. I was fascinated by how small, in contrast, the number of biologists working on forams was, when they were clearly (I thought) such an important part of marine benthic communities (i.e. critters on the seafloor). I mean, look at that reticulopodial net! Picture what those things might do with it, and how far it would penetrate the sediment around each foram!

Ironically, there are still a lot of benthic biologists who seem to routinely dismiss forams, whether alive (at time of collection) or dead (empty tests) in their sediment samples. (One day, we’ll convince them that forams and other protozoa like ciliates must be considered in benthic ecology.) The argument goes for paleoceanographers as well, though: often, they seem to think of forams as just those tiny empty shells they pick out.. and don’t stop to think that the biology of these things might be important – that the foram’s life history, food preferences, and environmental preferences would have influenced its whereabouts, as well as the stable isotope ratio in their shells.

So I decided I’d join that relatively small group of foram biologists. By the way, apart from being fascinating, forams are also extraordinarily beautiful:


Some random Antarctic benthic forams (credit: me)

No, really. Which was just another incentive. I prefer benthic over planktonic forams… because I like to play with mud, really. Anyway, I don’t work with forams anymore these days, but still get very excited about the beasties.

I just multitasked. Now you’re also ready for my next post, an interview with Sam Bowser.

This post was first published on Nature Network, which has since been discontinued. The post has been moved to SciLogs, where you can also read the comments made at the time.

About steffi suhr

Once upon a time, I was an enthusiastic and hopeful biological oceanographer who did a bunch of work in the Antarctic. I was alternately wearing labcoats or extreme weather clothing and hard hats, but have long since swapped survival suits for dress suits and do science management, currently as the BioMedBridges project manager at the European Bioinformatics Institute. I still like to use my brain. I'm a German serial expat, currently - again - living in the UK.
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5 Responses to This is why forams rule – no, really

  1. Kurt L Hanson says:

    Fascinating critters, their shapes, indeed. To want to believe that simple life forms arose from elemental mud of archaen earth through self-organizing principles, or forces. Some forms of life evolved further, others remained the same.
    Melding mathematical logic to the behavior of the elemental particle, the end result being an animated life form, how this is still needs thought.

  2. steffi suhr says:

    Kurt, I am quite wary of you posting anything on my blog now. Is this going to end up with you insulting someone again like last time? If you want to discuss your theories, maybe you’d be happier – and it would be more productive for everyone – if you had your own blog somewhere else?
    I won’t discuss it here or anywhere else.

  3. Kurt L Hanson says:

    steffi, when during those long and dark, cold days in Antarctica, and something other than backgammon and bridge or spades card games is wanted to change the pace of things, how about surfing to an entertaining Ted.com video to liven the place up a bit?
    Google Analytics told me of over seventy hits on one single day to my website after posting my page at NN. Trickled back down to the average of three or four hits ever since that day. I can only imagine the humiliation inside the summa cum laudes of NN realizing that this discovery of mine was performed by a non-academic, moi. You are the only one of those seventy NN members who have made direct contact in regards to my page, … doing so three months later. Everyone at NN already knows the gist of what I reference to. I was more expecting the renegade literary agent or publisher to sign me on to a big bucks contract after perusing my page on NN. Oh, well, everyone’s humiliation got the better of my imagination.

  4. Stephen Curry says:

    That’s quite an imagination you have there Kurt. If you’ve got something interesting to say, get a blog and say it. Your side-swipes aren’t justified and are becoming tiresome, so please take them elsewhere. Good luck with the book deal.

  5. steffi suhr says:

    Kurt, I do need to set this straight: You are the only one of those seventy NN members who have made direct contact in regards to my page, … doing so three months later.
    Call me slow (or still quite new to NN), but I missed whatever you posted three months ago the first time around. You directly asked me to look at your ‘idea’ much later. Wondering how bad it could be (since this came via NN) I scanned it briefly and gave you some very limited feedback, pretty much telling you that I wasn’t very impressed.
    Just to reiterate: in your own interest, get your own blog and promote your idea there – not here on my blog.

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