The Weissert Event

Paleogeographic map by C.R. Scotese, PALEOMAP project. From Cavalheiro et al., 2021

The continued fragmentation of Pangaea across the Late Jurassic and Early Cretaceous led to large-scale tectonic processes, on both regional and global scale, accompanied by some of the largest volcanic episodes in the history of the Earth, eustatic oscillations of the sea level, potentially heightened levels of anoxia, oceanic stagnation, and sulphur toxicity. The Weissert Event (~133 million years ago), linked with the main magmatic activity of the Parana`-Etendeka large igneous province (LIP), represents one of the most significant paleoceanographic events of the Early Cretaceous. This global perturbation in the C cycle is marked by a positive (+1.5‰) carbon isotope excursion (CIE) observed both in organic and inorganic records.

Global mean surface temperatures (GMSTs) and associated CO2 levels. From Cavalheiro et al., 2021.

A new study analyzed deep sea sediments obtained by the Ocean Drilling Program (ODP) from offshore Antarctica to reconstruct the paleotemperatures. The international team of researchers lead by Liyenne Cavalheiro combinded calcareous nannofossil data and chemostratigraphy, and found that that global temperatures declined by 3.0 °C (±1.7 °C) during the Weissert Event.

Calcareous nannoplankton represent a major component of oceanic phytoplankton. Their calcareous skeletons can be found in fine-grained pelagic sediments in high concentrations and the biomineralization of coccoliths is a globally significant rock-forming process. Additionally, reconstructions of Cretaceous sea-surface temperatures (SSTs) have been revolutionised by the development of the organic palaeothermometer TEX86, based on the distribution of marine archaeal membrane lipids.





Cavalheiro, L., Wagner, T., Steinig, S. et al. Impact of global cooling on Early Cretaceous high pCO2 world during the Weissert Event. Nat Commun 12, 5411 (2021).

Erba, E., Bartolini, A., & Larson, R. L. (2004). Valanginian Weissert oceanic anoxic event. Geology, 32(2), 149. doi:10.1130/g20008.1 

Holz, M., Mesozoic paleogeography and paleoclimates – a discussion of the diverse greenhouse and hothouse conditions of an alien world, Journal of South American Earth Sciences (2015), doi: 10.1016/j.jsames.2015.01.001

Forgotten women of Paleontology: Esther Richards Applin

Esther Richards Applin, 1944-1972. From Wikimedia Commons

In the 18th and 19th centuries women’s access to science was limited, and science was usually a ‘hobby’ for intelligent wealthy women. But at the beginning of 20th century, many universities started admitting women, with different motivations, including the lack of men following WWI and the Soviet Revolution. Later, the boom in the oil industry opened opportunities for women.
In 1920, E. T. Dumble, vice-president and general manager of the Rio Bravo Oil Company, put together a consortium agreement in Houston, which included his own company, the Texas Company, and Humble Oil Company. He hired Esther Applin née Richards, Alva Ellisor, and Hedwig Kniker to take charge of the company’s paleontological laboratory in Houston and solve the Gulf Coast stratigraphic problems. Macrofossils were too badly broken to be identifiable as to species, so Esther Applin turned her attention to the microfossils, especially foraminifera. It was the beggining of the micropaleontological revolution.

Esther Richards was born November 24, 1895, in in Newark, Ohio. She attended the University of California, Berkeley, and graduated with honors in paleontology in 1919. A year later, she moved to Houston to work for the Rio Bravo Oil company. In 1923, she married Paul L. Applin, a young geologist. In 1921, Esther presented a paper suggesting that microfossils could be use to stratigraphic correlation. Her study was ridiculed by Professor J.J. Galloway of the University of Texas, who stated: “Gentlemen, here is this chit of a girl, right out of college, telling us that we can use Foraminifera to determine the age of formation. Gentlemen, you know that it can’t be done.

From left to right: Esther Richards, John Suman, James L. Ballard, Alva Ellisor at Hidalgo Bluff near the Brazos River Botton. (From R.R.Gries. 2018)

In 1924, at a meeting of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG), Alva Ellisor, Esther Applin née Richards, and Hedwig Kniker presented their seminal paper: Subsurface stratigraphy o f the Coastal Plain of Texas and Louisiana. Since then, Micropaleontology was quickly embraced by industry, and even Galloway became a defender of this method. However, the role of these women was downplayed over time, and by 1975 the credit for this technology was shifted to four men.

Esther continued her work as a consulting paleontologist and subsurface geologist in Texas. She become a Fellow of The Geological Society of America, a charter member of the Society of Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists, and a member o f the Mississippi Geological Society. In 1966, in recognition of her contributions to micropaleontology, she was made an honorary member o f the Mississippi Geological Society. She died on July 23, 1972.


Richards Applin, Esther; Ellisor, Alva E.; Kniker, Hedwig T. (1925). “Subsurface Stratigraphy of the Coastal Plain of Texas and Louisiana”. American Association of Petroleum Geologists Bulletin. 9 (1): 79–122.

Gries, Robbie Rice (2018). “How female geologists were written out of history: The micropaleontology breakthrough”. Women and Geology: Who Are We, Where Have We Come from, and Where Are We Going?. doi:10.1130/2018.1214(02).

The Middle Eocene Climatic Optimum and the Patagonian floras.

Spore-pollen species from the Eocene of southern South America. From Fernandez et al., 2021

The geological records show that large and rapid global warming events occurred repeatedly during the course of Earth history. Ecological models can predict how biodiversity is affected by those events, but only the fossil record provides empirical evidence about the impact of rising temperatures and atmospheric CO2 on species diversity.

The Middle Eocene Climatic Optimum (MECO, ~40 Ma) was a transient period of global warming that interrupted the general cooling trend initiated at the end of the early Eocene climate optimum (EECO, ~49 Ma). The MECO is related to major oceanographic and climatic changes in the Neo-Tethys and also in other oceanic basins, and lasted about 500–600 Kyr. The MECO altered the pelagic ecosystem with repercussions on the food web structure. The lack of nutrients in the surface waters led to a significant decrease in planktonic foraminiferal accumulation rates, while autotroph nannoplankton accumulation rates remained stable.

Relative frequency of the most common plant groups across the MECO and Late Eocene. From Fernández et al., 2021

The MECO also influenced terrestrial biotas. A new study quantify the response of the floras of southern Patagonia to this warming event. The samples were collected from the Río Turbio Formation in southern Patagonia. The terrestrial palynological assemblage revealed a clear inverse relationship between the abundance of ferns and angiosperms. At the beginning of the MECO, ferns highly increase in abundance (with Cyatheaceae, Dicksoniaceae, and Osmundaceae as the most frequent families), while the abundance of angiosperms decreases dramatically. Podocarpaceae also increases from ~5 % to ~20%. At the core of MECO, ferns drop to a minimum, and angiosperms become dominant. Finally, at the end of the MECO ferns rise again to maximum values and angiosperms decrease.

Palynological analysis also revealed that floras in southern Patagonia were in average ~40% more diverse during the MECO than pre-MECO and post-MECO intervals. The penetration of neotropical migrant species to the highest latitudes along with the persistence of southern Gondwanan natives may have triggered the gradual increasing diversity that can be observed across the MECO.



Fernández, D.A., Palazzesi, L., González Estebenet, M.S. et al. Impact of mid Eocene greenhouse warming on America’s southernmost floras. Commun Biol 4, 176 (2021).

Giorgioni, M., Jovane, L., Rego, E.S. et al. Carbon cycle instability and orbital forcing during the Middle Eocene Climatic Optimum. Sci Rep 9, 9357 (2019).

Sonal Khanolkar, Pratul Kumar Saraswati & Karyne Rogers (2017) Ecology of foraminifera during the middle Eocene climatic optimum in Kutch, India, Geodinamica Acta, 29:2,181-193, DOI: 10.1080/09853111.2017.130084


Climate Change and the legacy of the Challenger expedition

SEM images of selected planktonic foraminifera specimens; (i) T. trilobus (Tara), (j) G. ruber (Tara), (k) G. ruber (Challenger), (l) G. bulloides (Challenger), (m,n) G. ruber test cracked to reveal wall texture (Tara), (o,p) G. ruber test cracked to reveal wall texture (Challenger). From Fox et al., 2020.

It all began in 1868, with British naturalist William B. Carpenter and Sir Charles Wyville Thomson, Professor of Natural History at Edinburgh University. They persuaded the Royal Society of London to sponsor a prolonged voyage of exploration across the oceans of the globe. But it was not until 1872 that Royal Society of London obtained the use of the HSM Challenger from the Royal Navy. The ship was modified for scientific work with separate laboratories for natural history and chemistry. The cost of expedition was £200,000 – about £10 million in today’s money. The expedition was led by Captain George Nares and the scientific work was conducted by Wyville Thomson assisted by Sir John Murray, John Young Buchanan, Henry Nottidge Moseley, and the German naturalist Rudolf von Willemoes-Suhm. From 1872 to 1876, Murray developed a pioneering device which could register the temperature of the ocean at great depths, and assisted in the collection of marine samples. After the dead of Thomson in 1882, John Murray became director and edited the Challenger Expedition Reports. 

The science and ship crew of the HMS Challenger in 1874.

The planktonic foraminifera collected during the HMS Challenger expedition are part of the historical collection of the Natural History Museum, London. Their importance as tool for paleoclimate reconstruction was recognized early in the history of oceanography. The samples collected almost 150 years ago provide an extraordinary opportunity to understand the effects of one of the most urgent questions of our time with regards to anthropogenic environmental change: ocean acidification. 
Planktonic foraminifera are a group of marine zooplankton with a shell composed of secrete calcite or aragonite, with no internal structures and different patterns of chamber disposition (trochospiral, involute trochospiral and planispiral growth); with perforations and a variety of surface ornamentations like cones, short ridges or spines. Their shells take up chemical signals from the sea water, in particular isotopes of oxygen and carbon. Over millions of years, these skeletons accumulate in the deep ocean to become a major component of biogenic deep-sea sediments. By comparing the sediment samples from the HMS Challenger Expedition (1872–1876) with the recent Tara Oceans expedition material (2009–2016), the researchers found that the composition of the planktonic foraminifera has changed significantly since the pre-industrial period, and revealed that all modern specimens had up to 76% thinner shells than their historic counterparts.

Nano-CT representative reconstructions and measurements for Neogloboquadrina dutertrei from Tara (a–c), and Challenger (d–f). From Fox et al., 2020.

Ocean acidification affects the biogeochemical dynamics of calcium carbonate, organic carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus and interferes with a range of processes including growth, calcification, development, reproduction and behaviour in a wide range of marine organisms like planktonic coccolithophores, foraminifera, echinoderms, corals, and coralline algae. Additionaly, ocean acidification can intensify the effects of global warming, in a dangerous feedback loop. Since the Industrial Revolution the pH within the ocean surface has decreased ~0.1 pH and is predicted to decrease an additional 0.2 – 0.3 units by the end of the century. 

After the World War II, the impact of human activity on the global environment dramatically increased. This period associated with very rapid growth in human population, resource consumption, energy use and pollution, has been called the Great Acceleration. In the coming decades, the ocean’s biogeochemical cycles and ecosystems will become increasingly stressed by ocean warming, acidification and deoxygenation. This scenario underlines the urgency for immediate action on global carbon emission reductions.



Fox, L., Stukins, S., Hill, T. et al. Quantifying the Effect of Anthropogenic Climate Change on Calcifying Plankton. Sci Rep 10, 1620 (2020).

Jonkers, L., Hillebrand, H., & Kucera, M. (2019). Global change drives modern plankton communities away from the pre-industrial state. Nature. doi:10.1038/s41586-019-1230-3

Wyville Thompson, C. The Voyage of the “Challenger”. The Atlantic. 2 volumes (1878).

Dohrn, Anton. (1895). The Voyage of HMS “Challenger” A Summary of the Scientific Results.



Forgotten women of paleontology: Irene Crespin

Irene Crespin (1896-1980)

Irene Crespin was born on November 12, 1896, in Kew, Victoria, Australia. In her memories, she wrote that her interest in Palaeontology began early in her life, when she was one of the first students to attend the Mansfield High School in northeastern Victoria. The head master of for a short period was the eminent Australian geologist Charles Fenner.

In 1919, she graduated with a B.A. from the University of Melbourne. In 1927 she joined the Commonwealth Government as Assistant Palaeontologist to Frederick Chapman at the National Museum of Victoria. Chapman was an authority on Foraminifera and was president of the Royal Society of Victoria. About her time at the Museum she wrote: “In the early days, we passed through the depression era. Our salaries were reduced overnight. I was reduced to six pounds a week. They were difficult times for us all. One would walk a long distance to save a threepenny tram fare.”

Dr Irene Crespin with W. Baragwanath, Secretary of Mines for Victoria, probably visiting a Cooksonia plant site, c. 1927 (From Turner 2007)

In 1936, Crespin succeeded Chapman as Commonwealth Palaeontologist. On February 10th, she was transferred from the National Museum, Melbourne to join the Commonwealth Geological Adviser, Dr. W.G. Woolnough, in Canberra. About her new position she wrote: “Of course, being a woman, and despite the tremendous responsibility placed upon me with the transfer to Canberra, I was given a salary of about half of that which Chapman received. Later the Chairman of the Public Service Board told me that I was being put on trial.”

She becoming greatly interested in the Tertiary microfaunas, and for some time she was the only professional micropaleontologist on the Australian mainland. Her research took her all over Australia. In 1939, she received permission from the Minister of the Interior to visit Java and Sumatra to discuss the problems of Tertiary correlation in the Netherlands East Indies with Papua and New Guinea.

Crespin’s photo of her aeroplane and crew on an overseas trip to Java, Indonesia, 1939 (From Turner 2007)

Crespin was well respected internationally and was a regular participant in national and international scientific conferences. In 1953, many of her books and specimens were destroyed as a result of a fire in the Canberra offices. The same year, she received Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation medal. In 1957 she was president of the Royal Society of Canberra, and was awarded with the Clarke medal of the Royal Society of New South Wales.

During her career she published 86 papers as sole author and more 22 in collaboration with other scientists. She was made an honorary fellow of the Royal Microscopical Society, London, in 1960. She became an honorary member of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science in 1973. She died in Canberra, on January 2, 1980.


Turner, S. (2007). Invincible but mostly invisible: Australian women’s contribution to geology and palaeontology. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 281(1), 165–202. doi: 10.1144/sp281.11

Crespin, Irene (1975). “Ramblings of a micropalaeontologist”. BUREAU OF MINERAL RESOURCES, GEOLOGY AND GEOPHYSICS.


Life finds a way.


Site M0077 in the Chicxulub crater as seen using gravity data. From Lowery et al., 2018.

In the late ’70, the discovery of anomalously high abundance of iridium and other platinum group elements in the Cretaceous/Palaeogene (K-Pg) boundary led to the hypothesis that an asteroid collided with the Earth and caused one of the most devastating events in the history of life. In 1981, Pemex (a Mexican oil company) identified Chicxulub as the site of this massive asteroid impact. The crater is more than 180 km (110 miles) in diameter and 20 km (10 miles) in depth, making the feature one of the largest confirmed impact structures on Earth.

The impact released an estimated energy equivalent of 100 teratonnes of TNT, induced earthquakes, shelf collapse around the Yucatan platform, and widespread tsunamis that swept the coastal zones of the surrounding oceans. The event also produced high concentrations of dust, soot, and sulfate aerosols in the atmosphere. The decrease of sunlight caused a drastic short-term global reduction in temperature (15 °C on a global average, 11 °C over the ocean, and 28 °C over land). While the surface and lower atmosphere cooled, the tropopause became much warmer, eliminate the tropical cold trap and allow water vapor mixing ratios to increase to well over 1,000 ppmv in the stratosphere. Those events accelerated the destruction of the ozone layer. During this period, UV light was able to reach the surface at highly elevated and harmful levels. Additionally, the vapour produced by the impact  could have led to global acid rain and a dramatic acidification of marine surface waters.

The Cretaceous/Palaeogene mass extinction eradicated almost three-quarters of the plant and animal species on Earth including non-avian dinosaurs, pterosaurs, marine reptiles, and ammonites. Global forest fires might have raged for months. Photosynthesis stopped and the food chain collapsed. Marine environments lost about half of their species, and almost 90% of Foraminifera species went extinct. But life always finds a way, and 30,000 years after the impact, a thriving ecosystem was present within the Chicxulub crater.

The evidence comes from the recent joint expedition of the International Ocean Discovery Program and International Continental Drilling Program. The team sampled the first record of the few hundred thousand years immediately after the impact within the Chicxulub crater. This sample includes foraminifera, calcareous nannoplankton, trace fossils and geochemical markers for high productivity. The lowermost part of the limestone sampled also contains the lowest occurrence of Parvularugoglobigerina eugubina, the first trochospiral planktic foraminifera, which marks the base of Zone Pα. This biozone was defined at Gubbio (Italy) to precisely characterise the Cretaceous/Paleogene boundary.

3 Early Danian foraminifer abundances and I/(Ca+Mg) oxygenation proxy. From Lowery et al., 2018.

P. eugubina was a low to middle latitude taxon with an open-ocean affinity and has an extremely variable morphology. Other foraminifer of the same genus (P. extensa, P. alabamensis) and Guembelitria cretacea were found at the same core. The nannofossil assemblage includes opportunistic groups that can tolerate high environmental stress such as Thoracosphaera and Braarudosphaera, but unlike the foraminifera, there are no clear stratigraphic trends in overall nannoplankton abundance. Discrete, but clear trace fossils, including Planolites and Chondrites, characterize the upper 20cm of the transitional unit. Nevertheless, the study also shows that photosynthetic phytoplankton struggled to recover for millions of years after the event.

Core samples also revealed that porous rocks in the center of the Chicxulub crater had remained hotter than 300 °C for more than 100,000 years. The high-temperature hydrothermal system was established within the crater but the appearance of burrowing organisms within years of the impact indicates that the hydrothermal system did not adversely affect seafloor life. These impact-generated hydrothermal systems are hypothesized to be potential habitats for early life on Earth and other planets.



Christopher M. Lowery et al. Rapid recovery of life at ground zero of the end-Cretaceous mass extinction, Nature (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-018-0163-6

Charles G. Bardeen, Rolando R. Garcia, Owen B. Toon, and Andrew J. Conley, On transient climate change at the Cretaceous−Paleogene boundary due to atmospheric soot injections, PNAS 2017 ; published ahead of print August 21, 2017 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1708980114

Brugger J.G. Feulner, and S. Petri (2016), Baby, it’s cold outside: Climate model simulations of the effects of the asteroid impact at the end of the CretaceousGeophys. Res. Lett.43,  doi:10.1002/2016GL072241.



Late Cretaceous and modern diatom ecology: implications for our changing oceans

Sin título

Photomicrographs of diatom resting spores. Scale bars =10 mm (From Davies and Kemp, 2016)

Diatoms are unicellular algae with golden-brown photosynthetic pigments with a fossil record that extends back to Early Jurassic. They live in aquatic environments, soils, ice, attached to trees or anywhere with humidity, and their remains accumulate forming diatomite, a type of soft sedimentary rock. The most distinctive feature of diatoms is their siliceous skeleton known as frustule that comprise two valves. The formation of this opaline frustule is linked  in modern oceans with the biogeochemical cycles of silicon and carbon.

Past fluctuations in global temperatures are crucial to understand Earth’s climatic evolution. During the Late Cretaceous the global climate change has been associated with episodes of outgassing from major volcanic events, orbital cyclicity and tectonism before ending with the cataclysm caused by a large bolide impact at Chicxulub, on the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico. Following a major diatom radiation after the Cenomanian-Turonian anoxic event, the development of the first extensive diatomites provides the earliest widespread geological evidence for the rise to prominence of diatoms in ocean biogeochemistry. Studies of the greenhouse Cretaceous climates are especially topical since such warm, high CO2 periods of the past are often invoked as potential analogues for present warming trends (Davies and Kemp, 2016).

A. Chain of Stephanopyxis turri (From

A. Chain of Stephanopyxis turri (From Davies and Kemp, 2016)

Because their abundance and sensitivity to different parameters,  diatoms play a key role in Paleoceanography, particularly for evidence of climatic cooling and changing sedimentation rates in the Arctic and Antarctic oceans and to estimate sea surface temperature. Like Stephanopyxis, a common planktonic genus in the present oceans distinguished by its long stratigraphic range from the Albian to modern. Stephanopyxis can be found in tropical or warm water regions and evidence suggests a similar ecological adaptation during the Cretaceous. Meanwhile, resting spore development is generally associated with the onset of unfavourable environmental conditions and sporulation generally occurs in response to a sudden change in one or more environmental factors.

Since the start of the Industrial Revolution the anthropogenic release of CO2 into the Earth’s atmosphere has increased a 40%. In this context, warming of the present surface ocean is  leading to increased stratification in both hemispheres. Based on traditional views of diatom ecology, ocean stratification would  lead to decreased diatom production and a reduced effectiveness of the marine biological carbon pump. But recent ocean surveys, and records of the stratified seas of the Late Cretaceous, suggest that increased stratification may lead to increased rather than decreased diatom production and export. This would then result in a negative-rather than positive feedback to global warming (Davies and Kemp, 2016).



A. Davies, A.E.S. Kemp, Late Cretaceous seasonal palaeoclimatology and diatom palaeoecology from laminated sediments, Cretaceous Research 65 (2016) 82-111

Martin, R. E. and Quigg, A. 2012 Evolving Phytoplankton Stoichiometry Fueled Diversification of the Marine Biosphere. Geosciences. Special Issue on Paleontology and Geo/Biological Evolution. 2:130-146.

The Pliocene Warm Period, an analogue of a future warmer Earth.


Tuktoyuktuk Beach on the Arctic Ocean (From Wikipedia)

Tuktoyuktuk Beach on the Arctic Ocean (From Wikipedia)

Microfossils from deep-sea are crucial elements for our understanding of past and present oceans. Their skeletons take up chemical signals from the sea water, in particular isotopes of oxygen and carbon. Over millions of years, these skeletons accumulate in the deep ocean to become a major component of biogenic deep-sea sediments. The incorporation of Mg/Ca into the calcite of marine organisms, like foraminifera, is widely used to reconstruct the thermal evolution of the oceans throughout the Cenozoic. Planktic foraminifer Globigerinoides ruber is perhaps one of the most widely used species for reconstructing past sea-surface conditions. Additionally, Mg/Ca–oxygen isotope measurements of benthic foraminifera may be related to global ice volume and by extension, sea level (Evans et al., 2016). The importance of microfossils as tool for paleoclimate reconstruction was recognized early in the history of oceanography. John Murray, naturalist of the CHALLENGER Expedition (1872-1876) found that differences in species composition of planktonic foraminifera from ocean sediments contains clues about the temperatures in which they lived.

Scanning Electron Micrographs of Globigerinoides ruber (adapted from Thirumalai et al., 2014)

Scanning Electron Micrographs of Globigerinoides ruber (adapted from Thirumalai et al., 2014)

The most recent investigations have focused on unravelling the Pliocene Warm Period, a period proposed as a possible model for future climate. The analysis of the evolution of the major ice sheets and the temperature of the oceans indicates that during the middle part of the Pliocene epoch (3.3 Ma–3 Ma), global warmth reached temperatures similar to those projected for the end of this century, about 2°–3°C warmer globally on average than today.

The mid-Pliocene is used as an analog to a future warmer climate because it’s geologically recent and therefore similar to today in many aspects like the land-sea configuration, ocean circulation, and faunal and flora distribution. Mid- Pliocene sediments containing fossil proxies of climate are abundant worldwide, and many mid- Pliocene species are extant, making faunal and floral paleotemperature proxies based on modern calibrations possible (Robinson et al., 2012).

Surface air temperature anomalies of (top) the late 21st century and (bottom) the mid-Pliocene (from Robinson et al., 2012)

Surface air temperature anomalies of (top) the late 21st century and (bottom) the mid-Pliocene (from Robinson et al., 2012)

Foraminiferal Mg/Ca data suggest that the Pliocene tropics were the same temperature or cooler than present. At high latitudes, mid- Pliocene sea surface temperatures (SSTs) were substantially warmer than modern SSTs. These warmer temperatures were reflected in the vegetation of Iceland, Greenland, and Antarctica. Coniferous forests replaced tundra in the high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere. Additionally, the Arctic Ocean may have been seasonally free of sea-ice, and were large fluctuations in ice cover on Greenland and West Antarctica (Dolan et al., 2011; Lunt et al., 2012).  These results highlights the importance of the Pliocene Warm Period to better understand future warm climates and their impacts.


David Evans, Chris Brierley, Maureen E. Raymo, Jonathan Erez, Wolfgang Müller; Planktic foraminifera shell chemistry response to seawater chemistry: Pliocene–Pleistocene seawater Mg/Ca, temperature and sea level change; Earth and Planetary Science Letters, Volume 438, 15 March 2016, Pages 139-148

Jochen Knies, Patricia Cabedo-Sanz, Simon T. Belt, Soma Baranwal, Susanne Fietz, Antoni Rosell-Mel. The emergence of modern sea ice cover in the Arctic Ocean. Nature Communications, 2014; 5: 5608 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms6608

Robinson, M.; Dowsett, H. J.; Chandler, M. A. (2008). “Pliocene role in assessing future climate impacts”; Eos 89 (49): 501–502.

Application of diatoms to tsunami studies.

Lisbon earthquake and tsunami in 1755 (From Wikipedia Commons)

Lisbon earthquake and tsunami in 1755 (From Wikipedia Commons)

Diatoms are unicellular algae with golden-brown photosynthetic pigments with a fossil record that extends back to Early Jurassic. The most distinctive feature of diatoms is their siliceous skeleton known as frustule that comprise two valves. They live in aquatic environments, soils, ice, attached to trees or anywhere with humidity and their remains accumulates forming diatomite, a type of soft sedimentary rock. Diatoms are the dominant marine primary producers in the oceans and play a key role in the carbon cycle and in the removal of biogenic silica from surface waters. But diatoms are also a valuable tool in reconstructing paleoenvironmental changes because of their sensitivity to environmental factors including salinity, tidal exposure, substrate, vegetation, pH, nutrient supply, and temperature found in specific coastal wetland environments. Through years, diatoms become part of the coastal sediments, resulting in buried assemblages that represent an environmental history that can span thousands of years. Diatoms alone cannot differentiate tsunami deposits from other kinds of coastal deposits, but they can provide valuable evidence for the validity of proposed tsunami deposits (Dura et al., 2015).

Electron microscope image of Diatoms from high altitude aquatic environments of Catamarca Province, Argentina (From Maidana and Seeligmann, 2006)

Electron microscope image of Diatoms from high altitude aquatic environments of Catamarca Province, Argentina (From Maidana and Seeligmann, 2006)

Tsunami deposits can be identify by finding anomalous sand deposits in low-energy environments such as coastal ponds, lakes, and marshes. Those anomalous deposits are diagnosed using several criteria such as floral (e.g. diatoms) and faunal fossils within the deposits. The delicate valves of numerous diatom species may be unusually well preserved when removed from surface deposits and rapidly buried by a tsunami.

Diatoms within the tsunami deposits are generally composed of mixed assemblages, because tsunamis inundated coastal and inland areas, eroding, transporting, and depositing brackish and freshwater taxa. Nonetheless, problems differentiating autochthonous (in situ) and allochthonous (transported) diatoms complicates reconstructions. In general, planktonic diatoms are considered allochthonous components in modern and fossil coastal wetland assemblages, while benthic taxa can be considered as autochthonous. Diatoms can also be used to estimate tsunami run-up  by mapping the landward limit of diatom taxa transported by the tsunami.



Hemphill-Haley, E., 1996. Diatoms as an aid in identifying late Holocene tsunami deposits. The Holocene 6, 439–448.

Tina Dura, Eileen Hemphill-Haley, Yuki Sawai, Benjamin P. Horton, The application of diatoms to reconstruct the history of subduction zone earthquakes and tsunamis, Earth-Science Reviews 152 (2016) 181–197. DOI: 10.1016/j.earscirev.2015.11.017

Armstrong, H. A., Brasier, M. D., 2005. Microfossils (2nd Ed). Blackwell, Oxford.

Barron, J.A. (2003). Appearance and extinction of planktonic diatoms during the past 18 m.y. in the Pacific and Southern oceans. “Diatom Research” 18, 203-224

Alcide d’Orbigny and the beginning of foraminiferal studies.


Alcide Dessalines d’Orbigny , 1802. From Wikimedia Commons

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Paris was a busy place for science. In 1794 the Reign of Terror ended with the establishment of a new government that was more supportive of the sciences. The old Royal Botanical Garden and the affiliated Royal Museum were reorganized as the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle. The new institution fostered many brilliant scientists, including Cuvier, Lamarck, and St. Hilaire. Among those remarkable men was Alcide Dessalines d’Orbigny, considered the founder of micropaleontology and biostratigraphy. He worked in natural history, geology, paleontology, anthropology, linguistics, taxonomy and systematics.

Alcide d’Orbigny was born in Couëron (Charente-Maritime) on September 6th, 1802. In his early youth, he developed a life interest in the study of a group of microscopic animals that he named ‘Foraminifera’ and established the basis of a new science, micropaleontology. He started at an early age working with his father, a doctor, who introduced him to the study of microscopic shells they collected from La Rochelle, a major port on the coast of France. However, Bartolomeo Beccari, was the first to study these tiny shells that could only be observed under the microscope. Beccari analysed in detail the outer and inner structure of the shell, recognising the concamerations and the coiled structure, and attributed these organisms to microscopic ‘Corni di Ammone’, continuing with the enduring confusion between ammonites and foraminifera that started in 1565 when Conrad Gesner described the nummulites collected in the surroundings of Paris. Also Giovanni Bianchi (known by the pseudonym Jaco Planco) in his work De conchis minus notis’ (1739) describes numerous microforaminifera that are found in abundance on the shoreline of Rimini and assigns them the name ‘Corni di Ammone’.

Cover of De conchis minus notis and foraminifera of Rimini’s seaside figured by Bianchi (1739, Table I) and attributed by the author to microscopic specimens of ‘Cornu Ammonis’.

Cover of De conchis minus notis and foraminifera of Rimini’s seaside figured by Bianchi (1739, Table I) and attributed by the author to microscopic specimens of ‘Cornu Ammonis’.

On November 7, 1825, d’Orbigny presented to the Académie des Sciences, the results of his observations in a work entitled ‘Tableau méthodique de la classe des Céphalopodes’. It’s clear that d’Orbigny also considered this group of  microscopic shells as belonging to the Cephalopods. But he was the first to divide the Cephalopods into two zoological orders:  the ‘Siphonifères‘ with intercameral siphon and ‘Foraminifères’ characterized by openings (or foramina) located in the septa separating two consecutive chambers. To illustrate his work, d’Orbigny prepared 73 plates of drawings and made models of 100 of his foraminiferal species that he sculpted in a very fine limestone.

There is a long gap between the publication of his pioneering work and his other works dedicated to foraminifera because of his long journey to South America documented in the nine volumes of his ‘Voyage dans l’Amérique Méridionale’ (1835–1847). In 1835, Félix Dujardin discovered that foraminiferans were not cephalopods, but single-celled organisms. This important discovery led d’Orbigny to exclude the foraminifera from the Cephalopods. In a work published in 1839, he traced the history of foraminiferal studies and considered them as a class for the first time, dividing the history of their study in four periods culminating with the revelation of their unicellular nature.

Operculina, showing the details of d’Orbigny’s drawings intended for the Tableau.

Operculina, showing the details of d’Orbigny’s drawings intended for the Tableau.

In the volume dedicated to the recent foraminifera collected in South America he pointed out the influence of currents, temperature and depth on their distribution patterns. In Mémoire sur les foraminifères de la craie blanche du bassin de Paris published in 1840, d’Orbigny demonstrated that foraminifera could be used for classifying geological strata.

D’Orbigny‘s legacy was extraordinary with thousands of species described, the occurrences of fossils documented chiefly in France, as well as his outstanding Le Voyage dans l’Amérique méridionale published between 1835-1847, and covering the biology, ethnology, anthropology, paleontology, and other aspects of Chile, Peru, Argentina, Uruguay, and especially Bolivia.

In 1853, Napoleon III created the Chair of Paleontology in the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in his honour. After his death on June 30, 1857, the collection of d’Orbigny, which includes more than 14,000 species and over 100,000 specimens not counting innumerable foraminifera stored in assorted glass bottles, was auctioned by his family. The collection was bought by the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, in 1858 and registered in the catalogue of the Paleontology Laboratory of this institution.



d’Orbigny, A. 1826. Tableau méthodique de la classe des Céphalopodes. Annals des Sciences Naturelles, 1st Series, 7: 245-314.
Dujardin, F. 1835a. Observations sur les Rhizopodes et les Infusoires, Comptes Rendus, de l’Académie des Sciences, 1: 338-340.

Heron-Allen, E. (1917) Alcide d’Orbigny, his life and his work. Journal of the Royal Microscopic Society, ser. 2, 37, 1–105, 433–4.

Seguenza G. 1862. Notizie succinte intorno alla costituzione geologica dei terreni terziarii del distretto di Messina. Messina: Dalla Stamperia di Tommaso Capra. 84 pp.

Vénec-Peyré, M-T, 2004, Beyond frontiers and time: the scientific and cultural heritage of Alcide d’Orbigny (1802–1857), Marine Micropaleontology 50, 149 – 159.