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Under a microscope, scientists discover "ghost" fossils

By: April Carson

"Ghost" fossils belonging to tiny, ancient creatures could provide insights into how life reacts to climate change in Earth's seas.

Researchers were blown away when they looked at the impressions made by single-celled plankton, or fossilized nannoplankton, that lived millions of years ago using a powerful microscope.

"The finding of the ghost fossils came as a complete surprise," Sam Slater, a researcher at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, wrote in the study.

"We had just been conducting research on fossil pollen from the same strata. I'd never seen anything like it before, and finding it doubly surprising because imprints were observed in vast numbers in rocks where normal nannofossils are uncommon or entirely lacking," Slater added.

When the scientists zoomed in to view the potholes using magnifications of thousands of times, they discovered intricate structures on the surface of the pollen. They also observed tiny holes on the pollen's surface when they used a scanning electron microscope to look at it.

The imprints of nannoplankton exoskeletons known as coccolithophores were observed in the rock.

The study's lead author, Dr. Zanna Leroy, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Earth Science at Royal Holloway, said: "This is the first time that such fossils have been described from this time period."

The tiny plankton that first appeared in the Cambrian period still lives today, and it aids marine food webs, creates oxygen, and stores carbon in seafloor sediments. The cell is surrounded by a coccolithophore, which uses a coccolith to construct a hard calcareous plate that can fossilize in rocks.

Within the ocean, coccolithophores may produce cloudlike blooms that can be seen from space. And when they die, their exoskeletons settle to the seafloor. The exoskeletons may mature into chalk-like rocks once they gather enough.

The ghost fossils were formed as silt-rich seafloor sediment transformed to rock. The hard coccolith plates were pressed together by successive layers of mud accumulating on the sea floor. As time went on, acidic water trapped within the rock cavities dissolved the coccoliths. All that was left behind was a mark in the stone they had previously made.

"The survival of these ghost nannofossils is truly remarkable," according to study coauthor Paul Bown, a University College London professor of micropaleontology. "They are direct witnesses to environmental conditions at a time when Earth was going through huge changes, including the rise of oxygen in the atmosphere, and they help us piece together the jigsaw puzzle of how life first began."

"The ghost fossils are tiny – their length is around five thousandths of a millimetre, 15 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair! -- but the original plates' intricate detail is still clearly imprinted on the surfaces of ancient organic material, even though the plates themselves have vanished."

The plankton have been declining since previous global warming events that affected the seas, according to previous research, prompting scientists to believe that acidification in the ocean and overall climate change harmed them.

The ghost fossils tell a different tale, revealing that coccolithophores were numerous in the sea during three separate periods of ocean warming over the Jurassic and Cretaceous eras: 94 million, 120 million, and 183 million years ago.

"Typically, paleontologists just look for the fossil coccoliths on their own, and if they don't find any, they often consider that these ancient plankton communities died out," Vivi Vajda, a professor at Sweden's Museum of Natural History, added.

These ghost fossils illustrate that the fossil record can deceive us, and that there are other ways for calcareous nannoplankton to be preserved in the future, which must be considered when attempting to understand past climate change reactions.

When volcanoes erupted increased quantities of carbon dioxide in the Southern Hemisphere, triggering rapid worldwide warming 183 million years ago during the Early Jurassic era, they were previously concerned with the Toarcian Oceanic Anoxic Event.

Ghost fossils have been discovered in the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, and New Zealand as a result of this catastrophe. Specimens found in Sweden and Italy are linked to warming ocean events 120 million years ago and 94 million years ago, respectively.

For example, paleontologists may use these ghost fossils to search for them in other fossil record gaps and better comprehend global warming events over the planet's history.

The plankton grew stronger and more diversified as the world warmed, seemingly to the point where it was not a good thing for other creatures.

When plankton blooms die and sink to the seabed, their decomposition consumes oxygen and depletes it from the water, which can create regions where most species cannot live.

Most of the plankton had previously been frozen in ancient, prehistoric ice that now cover much of Canada and areas surrounding the Arctic Circle. These bottom-dwelling animals were covered with a layer of snow or ice during each warming event, which preserved their bodies from decaying. "The proliferation of plankton," he added, "helped to promote marine dead zones — regions where seafloor oxygen levels were too low for most species to thrive."

"These features, which include expanding dead zones and plankton blooms, may become more common in our globally warming seas," he continued. "Our study also underscores the importance of protecting polar regions, which are critical for maintaining the Earth's climate."

Not all species will react in the same way to future global warming, according to Slater, and this research suggests that scientists will need a more sophisticated approach than they have now when predicting how different species will respond as the planet heats up. Global warming is happening quicker now than during these historical events, and Slater thinks this study demonstrates that scientists will need a more complicated method of predicting how various species would react as the climate changes.

A research on the findings was published Thursday in the scientific journal Science.

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About the Blogger:

April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on

To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav



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