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:
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.