Friday, March 30, 2018

Picture book

A "typical" foraminiferan, Cibicides
, photographed under
a dissecting microscope. 
"Here, try looking through this," my advisor, Lauren, instructed me, as she handed me a large gray book. I read the cover: Foraminiferal genera and their classification. Sounds promising, I thought.

I've been trying to identify some of the organisms on my recruitment panels that I collected from the Arctic deep sea last summer. Most of the animal taxa I was able to identify myself (sponges and sea lilies and the like), but there is a whole other group of organisms on the panels that I'm not so good at identifying: the foraminiferans.

The name is a mouthful, so you can just call them forams. They're single-celled organisms that are more common than you think. They live in the water column and on the seafloor, and their shells form important geological structures. Have you ever seen the star-shaped sand on the beaches of Okinawa, Japan? Those sand grains are really foraminiferan shells. Ever heard of the White Cliffs of Dover? 100% ancient foram. They make great fossils. In fact, the majority of people who study foraminiferans are not marine biologists but paleoceanographers. These scientists collect cores of deep-sea sediment and analyze the forams in the different sediment layers to learn about Earth's climate at various points in the past. My best friend is one.
A page showing different kinds of forams.

To me, foraminiferans are like modern dance. I spent most of my childhood learning the classical forms of ballet, so by the time I encountered modern in high school, the movements felt strange, and they all looked the same. I had a very hard time creating the shapes with my body that the teacher was looking for because every step, every phrase felt like anti-dance. It is also extremely difficult for me to tell foraminiferans apart because they all fall into the same category: Tiny Things I Don't Recognize.

As I flipped through the photographic volume my advisor had loaned me, I saw several figures that looked just like my specimens. I wrote down their names, but to be honest, it's hard for me to tell if they actually are the same. I'm not familiar with the key characteristics in foram taxonomy. So many of the species have spiral-shaped, multi-chamber bodies that I'm having a hard time telling one spiral from the next.

One of the forams I need identified
The good news is that I don't have to work entirely on my own. Science is a collaborative venture, and I happen to know a few people who identify forams for a living - my dear friend, Stefanie, for example. I also wrote to a prominent foram biologist in the U.K., who I had met on a research cruise a few years ago. The whole time we were at sea, he and his team were collecting manganese nodules from the seafloor and identifying the forams on them. I trust he'll be able to help.

In the meantime, if any of you want to take a crack at identifying my forams, speak up! I'll just be here, flipping through an 848-page scientific picture book, trying to figure out which species look most like my samples.

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