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Foraminifera: The Best Fossils Come in Small Packages

by Devin Reese -- Jan 21, 2015

Devin is the lead digital science writer for the Q?rius website. She writes and gathers media for the Smithsonian Science How? webcast series,...

Colorful shells of forams on a coral reef. Image by Pamela Hallock, University of South Florida
Colorful shells of forams on a coral reef. Image by Pamela Hallock, University of South Florida

If you haven’t seen foraminifera yet, no need to feel left out. Most people haven’t seen a foraminifer (or foram), or don’t realize they’ve seen one, because they’re so tiny. Forams are ocean organisms that live in all marine environments, from the tropics to the poles. They are so abundant (thousands per square centimeter) that their little shells pile up as sands on the ocean floor as they die.

Foram shells record information about the surrounding water and conditions when the foram was alive. They are like natural data loggers that can be interpreted by experts to track conditions on Earth. Scientists who study past life on Earth (paleobiologists) use the chemistry of fossil foram shells to detect conditions millions of years ago.

Because foram species are associated with particular environments, the distribution of forams changes over time as species evolve and go extinct. By analyzing which foram species were present, paleobiologists can decipher the age of rocks and interpret the environments of the time. This makes forams valuable in understanding Earth's history and also useful to the oil and gas industry as part of the process of locating rocks that might contain petroleum.

Forams can even track climate changes. Find out more by watching a “Smithsonian Science How” webcast titled Global Change – Reading Ocean Fossils on the Q?rius website. Dr. Brian Huber, a paleobiologist at the National Museum of Natural History, will discuss and answer questions. Get teaching resources to support your webcast experience.