Skip to main content

The Q? Blog

Learning to Love Microscopic Fossils

by Gabe -- Oct 16, 2015
Photo of YES! intern Gabe

My name is Gabe and I am from Virginia. I completed my sophomore year of high school this past spring. My favorite subject in school is math and in college...

YES! intern Gabe peers into a microscope and sees ostracods, right, a type of microscopic marine fossil. Photos by YES! intern Gabe, Smithsonian.
YES! intern Gabe peers into a microscope and sees ostracods, right, a type of microscopic marine fossil. Photos by YES! intern Gabe, Smithsonian.

When I think of paleobiology, my brain automatically screams “dinosaurs,” but if there is one thing I learned this summer it is that there is more to the Department of Paleobiology than giant Triceratops skulls and ancient T. rex teeth. In fact, you can find evidence of an entirely different world inside a glass jar of sediment.

I‘m Gabe, by the way, and this summer I interned in the Department of Paleobiology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History through the Youth Engagement through Science program.

As I toured the department on my first day, my mentor, Gene Hunt, led my partner, Joan, and I through a labyrinth of hallways, stopping every now and then to point out woolly mammoth teeth and saber-toothed tiger skulls, among other fascinating specimens. Naturally, seeing these collection objects made me overload with excitement. Turned out, I would be working with none of those specimens. I would be working with ostracods—and I had no idea what they were.

We continued walking until we reached a shelf, cluttered with jars containing what looked like sand. “Ostracods,” Gene said.

We would be improving the physical state of the collections—which is a technical way of saying we would be moving sediment samples from their current containers to new ones and entering information about each sample into a database. So it looked like I would be working with jars of sand all summer; however, my view on those jars was about to change.

The sediment did not look like much to me. It took a small sample of sediment and a microscope for me to realize that there was more to the sediment than was visible to the naked eye. What I saw under the microscope was not dust or sand, but a whole other world of shells, each hinting at a scientific story waiting to be told. I finally got a good look at ostracods, too. I also found out they live underwater, mostly at the bottom of oceans, they are plankton-size, and look kind of like armored fleas.

Next time you go to the beach, try getting some sand from the bottom of the ocean and then examining it under a microscope. Who knows, maybe you will find your own little world of ostracods and get just as excited about jars of sediment as I did this summer.

Tags: fossil
Categories: YES! Teen Interns