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WINTER 2003 - The Moving Finger

Science musings from a desktop in West Oxfordshire

Tiny Denizens of the Deep

Globigerina bulloides  

Like the background? It's the planktonic foram Globigerina bulloides. Wow, what a jawbreaker! The picture was taken by my friend and colleague Howie Spero at his laboratory at the University of California at Davis. Davis isn't near the sea, in fact it's in the San Joaquin valley of central California on the other side of the Sierra Nevada from the ocean, but all the same Howie's lab is the place in the world for the study of these tiny, beautiful and enigmatic creatures.

Planktonic forams are one of the most abundant living things on our planet - they exist in their trillions in the surface waters of the ocean. They are also one of the smallest, this foram is only about 1mm across from one side of the image to the other. The tiny spines that you can see radiating away from the central group of chambers are several times bigger than the actual body of the organism and carry a sticky covering of mucus in which tiny cells of algae live. These algae photosynthesise, that is they create sugars by trapping carbon dioxide and using sunlight to fuel the reaction. The foram gets the benefit of this free lunch and the algae in turn get the benefit of all the carbon dioxide that the foram produces when it breaks down the sugar back into energy. It is a perfect symmetry.

The planktonic forams have a long and illustrious history. They evolved soon after the dinosaurs came to prominence as the dominant vertebrates on land - and unlike the dinosaurs they are still here. Truly shall the meek inherit the Earth! You see, big isn't always beautiful in the grand scheme of life; the dinosaurs are history (well apart from when Spielberg gets the urge to resurrect them: check out Jurassic Park III by the way - it's better than II) but the forams are still here, vastly greater in biomass today than all the dinosaurs that ever lived and still controlling the world's climate. You see, by pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere they make sure we don't overheat from Greenhouse Warming. They and their cousins the coccolithophores are the world's thermostats.

I'm thinking a lot about forams as I work on my new book. It's about the sea floor and one of the most extraordinary facts about forams is that huge areas of the sea floor are made up of vast accumulations of their mortal remains across untold millennia of deep time. These sediments are kilometres deep in places. And the dinosaurs - just a few bones from a handful of localities around the world.

Hey, that gives me an idea for Jurassic Park IV :-)

All best,

Richard

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Richard Corfield 2003 in association with pedalo.co.uk