Education: 3D Foraminifera

By Jen Bauer, Maggie Limbeck, and Audrey Parker

Editor’s note: Jen and Maggie were both graduate students in the paleontology program in the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department at the University of Tennessee where they met Audrey, an undergraduate completing her degree in geology with an additional focus in early childhood education.

Foraminifera (also called forams) are small single-celled organisms (protists) that float around in the water column eating nutrients. These creatures are found worldwide and are incredibly useful to scientists. Certain species of forams only existed for very specific amounts of time so are good indicators of geologic time when looking at rocks. Since forams are distributed worldwide, we are also able to correlate the same species across continents!

This is a plot generated through Google ngram that looks at the usage of terms in books through time. We start in 1800 and as we continue to the right foraminifera (blue line) are much more popular in literature until about 1980 with the crash of the oil industry. This crash meant many foraminifera workers were no longer employed and therefore no longer producing work on forams!

Forams are also incredibly useful for studying climate and ocean circulation. They build their shells (called tests) from elements in the ocean water. This means that the elements within their shells should match the ocean chemistry at the time the organism was making its shell. This can give us information on oxygen and carbon levels in the ocean – helping us better understand ancient climate. The oil industry boom furthered the study and research of foraminifera. For a long time, they were written about more than dinosaurs! Research and literature has declined as oil exploration has slowed.



For scale, here are some foraminifera specimens on a penny. Notice the lettering and a portion of Lincoln’s head!

Because foraminifera are typically quite small (size ranges from about 50 micrometers to 20 cm across), it is impractical to study them in either classrooms or at home. Most people do not have ready access to a microscope or the other tools required to examine foraminfera. Additionally, it is difficult to ensure all students are getting the same experience with the microscope as focusing on the specimens would likely be very time consuming for the educator. Our department was in possession of a large set of plaster foram models that are on average about 4 inches (~100 mm). These large models lack fine detail but the overall shape and ornamentation of the forams remains intact. By making our set of foram models available for everyone we increase the visibility of forams and share a great learning tool! Forams come in all shapes and sizes, span all geologic time, and are useful for all ages.

The set of foraminifera models are now available through the myFOSSIL 3D gallery allowing anyone to examine these microfossils. Gaining access to fossils, especially microfossils, can be incredibly difficult and costly for the regular individual, student, or collector. This increases accessibility and utility of these fossils to a broader audience. In addition to making the models, we created several lesson plans. The lesson plans are designed to be used with a variety of age groups. Topics covered include introductory information about forams, an ecology lesson, and a high-school focused lesson on paleoclimatology. We even wrote one lesson focusing on English Language Arts skills for younger students. The goal of these lessons is for each to be accessible to a wide range of ages and ability levels. The lessons will soon be freely available on myFOSSIL!

To learn more, read these previous newsletter articles about foraminifera:

Research: Larger Benthic Foraminifera and the Eocene-Oligocene Transition by Laura Cotton

Foraminifera and the Cushman Foundation by Jere Lipps

Lesson Content:

Lessons were developed by Audrey Parker and modified by Jennifer Bauer & Maggie Limbeck

What is a foraminifera?

Foraminifera paleoecology


Additional Lessons

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