You are here

Using Microfossils to Understand Paleo-Climate

Developed by Hilary Clement Olson, Institute for Geophysics, Jackson School of Geosciences, The University of Texas at Austin

How to cite this work: Olson, H.C. 2010. Using Microfossils to Understand Paleo-Climate, TXESS Revolution, http://www/, Date Accessed.


Background Foraminifera represent a group of marine, microscopic, shell-producing organisms belonging to the phylum Protista.  Many of these organisms are benthic, and their distribution reflects variations in substrate and characteristics of bottom waters.  Other foraminifera are planktonic in nature, giving us insight into the nature of surface water masses around the world.  The integration of the study of foraminifera into the life sciences and earth sciences classroom creates an opportunity for students to exercise critical thinking skills in applying the variety of knowledge they have learned in their current curriculum. 

This scenario is particularly true in the middle school classroom with students at an age where they are moving between concrete learning and more abstract thinking skills.  Encouraging students to think about how information learned in class pertains to foraminifera forces them to process abstract concepts and apply them to a concrete example.

The diversity of foraminifera in the geologic record (more than 40,000 species) and in the modern marine realm (more than 6,000 species) provides abundant data which can be applied to a broad spectrum of scientific problems throughout earth's history.  Their microscopic size (.1 mm - 1 cm) and wide geographic distribution in both modern and ancient seas result in the availability of billions of their shells through drilling, dredging or plankton towing.  Because the ocean habitats of modern foraminifera have been well-documented, this group of protists serves as a monitor for marine environments and a proxy for paleoenvironments throughout the history of the oceans. Some scientific investigations employing foraminifera as a primary tool include:

1) study of climate through geologic time and related ocean history by examining "cool-," "temperate-," and "warm-water" species preserved in the rock record;

2) use of modern foraminifera as environmental indicators in coastal bays and estuaries;

3) application of the fossil record of foraminifera to the study of evolutionary concepts and theories and concomitant development of a geologic time scale; and

4) interpretation of past environments, particularly water-depth, using the distribution of modern benthic foraminifera as a key to the fossil record.

Research and Testing of This Activity

This activity was implemented in the following teacher professional development workshops: (1) TXESSS Revolution PDA 7C (2010), funded by the National Science Foundation Opportunities for Enhancing Diversity in the Geosciences program. Feedback from teachers was used to refine the activity.

Teachers who attended PDA 7C rated the activity as shown in the table below.

NEED TABLE  Table 1: Activity rating by X TXESS Revolution teachers in PDA 7C (2010).