Curator of Micropalaeontology | Diary of a Principal Curator July 2021

This year I’m writing a diary entry each month for a typical week in the life of a Principal Curator at the Natural History Museum. In the July entry, I join a team carrying out fieldwork at a secret Jurassic location, analyse some interesting fossils from Vietnam, make a start on assessing and rationalising our collections documentation, submit a paper publishing a set of important microfossil images, and start a project studying micrometeorites.

Giles in the field
A screenshot from the BBC News Video from the NHM fieldwork in summer 2017 showing me making notes about the microfossil samples I took.

Monday – Fieldwork in a secret Jurassic location

The museum has been alerted to a find of some exceptionally preserved Jurassic fossils in a Wiltshire Quarry so I put my hand up to go and help by providing some micropalaeontological support to the study. I collect microfossil samples from the clay layers either side of the beds that contain the fabulous fossils. By studying the microfossils in the clays we can investigate why these fossils have been so amazingly preserved. I look for ostracod fossils that are very good indictors of environment but the samples will hopefully yield lots of other types of microfossil that could also help with building up a picture of what life was like on the bottom of this Jurassic sea. Early interpretations have included that they were flattened by a blanket of underwater sediment in a storm about 187 million years ago. The dig makes the national news and the back of my head appears in a BBC news video!

A scan showing the elemental composition of the surface of a fossiliferous rock from Vietnam. The colours represent the elements Carbon, Silicon and Iron.

Tuesday – more exceptionally preserved material

It seems that this is the month for studying exceptionally preserved material. Today I analyse some rocks from Vietnam for my PhD student that we think could come from a rock formation with exceptional preservation.  The scanning electron microscope (SEM) can measure the distribution of different elements across the surface of a rock and this can tell us about the type of preservation. Today we manage to analyse only a few millimetres square of the area but the results look promising so my student Anna will visit more regularly to carry out a more detailed study over the coming months. We are fortunate to have such high-class analytical equipment but I always wish that I could spend more time using it!

Wednesday – the big rationalisation starts

The collections move to Harwell starts in about 5 years but a request from a former colleague reminds me that there is a lot of rationalisation of collections documentation to be done first. We’ve been fortunate to have some active former members of staff in our group but the reality is that their offices are still full of collection related documentation that is unlikely to be moved with the collections. My former Head of Division John Whittaker asks if I can find a reprint of one of his papers? He has multiple copies of his published works as journal offprints in multiple locations around the micropalaeontological collections so I gather them together in one place, revise his list of his publications and put aside a small number of each publication in case of future enquiries. Sadly there’s no sign of the requested publication but this has been a very useful exercise.

Half the images from a paper recently submitted that illustrates type Brazilian Cretaceous ostracods.

Thursday – paper submitted

Some years ago I managed a consultancy project to provide high quality images of type specimens from the Cretaceous of Brazil. The report has been embargoed until recently so today a paper is submitted publishing the images. They will be an important reference for others working on the Cretaceous of Brazil and we have already had several enquiries asking when it will be published.

Micrometeorites from chalk

Friday – Micrometeorite discovery

I have always somehow believed that my most famous discoveries would be made unwittingly. Many of my fossil fish scale discoveries were made while looking for something else! Today we have the first meeting for a new project studying micrometeorites. Recently a Museum PhD student discovered them in one of my microfossil preparations, so we have applied for internal funding to run a trial to find some more. Initial studies suggest that micrometeorites are common in the fossil record and have potential to show how the earth’s atmosphere has changed through geological time. I’ve spent many years in the basement lab dissolving limestones to look for microfossils so I am glad that this work is yielding unexpected benefits.

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