Meet the…. biostratigraphers!

Good afternoon folks.

This week on “meet the scientists” we’re going for another double-whammy of scientific introductory goodness. So without further ado I will introduce you to Clara and Oscar, who are part of our paleontology (“Paleo”) dream team here on Exp. 353.


Hello interviewees! Can you tell the nice people at home what your names are and where you come from please?

CB: I’m Clara Bolton from the UK, and I’m a junior CNRS researcher at CEREGE in Aix-en Provence, France.

OR: I’m Oscar E. Romero, German/Argentinean; a Senior Researcher at MARUM, Center for Marine Environmental Sciences, University Bremen, Germany. 

clara microscope_small                                      Oscar microscope_small

[Clara and Oscar working hard at their respective microscopes, deep in the Paleo-annex]

Good stuff. So can you tell us what your specialty is on the JR and what it involves?

CB: Nannos! Mostly this involves making slides of the mud from each core as it comes up, looking at it in the microscope, and based on what species of calcareous nannofossils I see, working out how old it is. Nannos are the fossil remains of a group of phytoplankton that used to live in the surface ocean (coccolithophores).


[Some truly awesome modern coccolithophores filtered from the seawater around the JR this expedition. So. Darn. Cool.]
OR: On the JR I am sailing as a micropaleontologist/biostratigrapher. My specialty is studying diatoms, which are siliceous microorganisms thriving in surface waters of all ocean waters. When they die, their remains sink and accumulate in bottom ocean sediments. As a JR biostratigrapher, I help determine the ages of the collected sediments. Diatoms and other microfossils deliver these ages.


[A cute little modern diatom – totally made of silica, so pretty much glass. Beautiful!]

Sounds like you get to look at awesome tiny fossils all day – what could be nicer?! But why is this job so important to the expedition objectives?

OR: As soon as sediment cores are on board, scientists need to know how old (or young) sediments are. Since biostratigraphers are the first scientists working on collected sediment, we can rapidly find out in which part of the geological time scale we are.

CB: Nannos have a very high evolutionary turnover, so they can provide quite precise ages based on the presence/absence of marker species. They are also very abundant in the tropical open ocean fossil record, like here in the Indian Ocean, so they can provide information where other microfossils are absent. In real time, we are able to tell the scientists how deep in time they are, so they know whether to go [drill] deeper or stop!



[ A fresh core surface: both Clara and Oscar take tiny “smear slides” from the cores by mixing a toothpick-sized piece of sediment with a drop of water on a glass slide. Looking at these slides under the microscope lets them identify the different species of nanno and diatom in each sample in no time at all!]

clara slide

[Clara skillfully making a smear-slide with a toothpick – Credit: Bill Crawford and IODP]

Ah so that’s why we brought you guys along 🙂 Can you briefly tell us what floats your metaphorical boat research-wise when you’re not on the JR?

OR: I do research on marine sediments from different parts of the world ocean and teach micropaleontology to undergrads.

CB: Paleoceanography. I use nannos (and sometimes foraminifers) as a proxy for understanding past changes in oceanographic conditions (like nutrient conditions and ocean chemistry), to understand the two-way relationship between climate and biotic responses.

 Ah, so with all the lovely mud we’re coring in the Bay of Bengal, this is just the expedition for you, eh? What is the scientific question you are most hoping to answer with the new material from Exp. 353?

CB: I hope to see how primary productivity varied in relation to the evolution of the monsoon and Earth’s orbital cycles.

OR: I am interested in (1) basin-to-basin changes of nutrient availability and (2) high-resolution variability of paleoclimatic conditions. As for human beings, nutrients (food!) are needed by diatoms for growth and to stay alive; depending on whether these nutrients were present (or not) in the surface waters of the ocean in geological past times, diatoms were there or they were not. This gives us clues about past changes in productivity. Since I am also working in the Indonesian area, the eastern equatorial Pacific and the Gulf of Alaska, I can compare sediment records –of the same age- from different parts of the world ocean. This brings me to my second interest: by looking at diatoms, we can also describe how the climate and the ocean conditions changed through time.

Cool beans. Well thanks for enlightening us about your science. What would you say is the best part about being on the JR?

CB: Making new friends and future collaborators, the amazing ever-changing clouds and all the sunsets…

OR: Sharing time with an incredible amount of amazing scientists and learning from different fields of research.

clara cake_3_small

[Clara enjoying her amazing nanno-themed birthday cake last week! Birthdays are taken very seriously on board, with lots of singing, cakes and good times]


[Oscar having a good time on the catwalk – credit: @holy_kau]

Agreed, definitely some of my favourite things about being here too. Now what’s the worst part about being at sea on the JR, and what do you miss most from home?

 CB: Friends and family (a bit obvious but true!)

OR: I miss several things; family, friends, meals, my mountain-bike, jogging outdoors, my bed!

Well thanks very much Clara and Oscar – a fascinating glimpse into the secretive world of the sea-going paleontologist. Next time on “meet the scientists”, what is a “stratigraphic correlator” when he’s at home…?


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