Looking back to see the future – foraminifera hold the answers

Protozoa foraminifera. Image courtesy of Noora.S

Our planet has been through climate changes many times over millennia. We know this because scientists, including those at SAAMBR’s Oceanographic Research Institute (ORI), study the fossilised remains of plants and animals to find out what happened in the past.  

In a number of different projects at ORI, scientists are looking for clues from the past to help us understand the future. Master's student Stephanie Hayman, under the supervision of Professor Mike Schleyer and Fiona MacKay, is studying foraminifera, amoebas that live within an internal shell (a test) of calcium carbonate. Their limestone homes vary from very tiny single spheres to large clusters, and as they grow they add additional rooms to their homes.

These tiny animals (less than one millimetre in size) only have a lifespan of three to six months, live in all aquatic environments on the sea floor in different sediments and reefs, and form an important part of marine plankton.

When they die their shells become part of the sediment that helps build coral reefs. As one of the main producers of carbonate in coral reef systems they provide us with useful clues about changes in the environment.

Protozoa foraminifera. Image courtesy of fickleandfreckled

Increased temperatures and ocean acidification associated with a changing climate will have an effect on them, as calcium carbonate, being alkaline, is susceptible to increased acidity. Research is under way at Sodwana Bay to better understand the potential influence of climate change on calcifying marine organisms such as foraminifera.

Using a technique known as coring – basically removing a long plug of sediment – samples are taken from different areas and subjected to carbon dating. This process has revealed that the foraminifera in the oldest part of the core were deposited about 1 270 to 1 030 years ago.

This valuable information helps us understand the environmental conditions of the past, and gives us a glimpse into the future, as our climate continues to change.

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