And now for something completely different….with surprising relevance

Today I received the advance copies of my latest book, published by Cambridge University Press, and entitled Foraminifera and their Applications. (When not treading the streets of London earlier this year, I was busily scribbling away with my other academic and scientific hat on). Although seemingly a completely different field of study, Foraminifera have helped to reveal aspects of London’s past.

Foraminifera and their applications

The front cover of my new book

What are Foraminifera?

This is a question I am often asked.  I tend to try to keep my answer simple, so as to be as comprehensible as possible to the layman.  I say that they are microscopic single-celled organisms similar to Amoebae, but differing in possessing shells.

Why should I care?

This is another question I am often asked in one form or another (such as “So what?”), usually immediately after I have given my answer to the previous one.  I say: on account of the numerical importance of living ones in modern aquatic environments and of fossil ones in the ancient rock record; and of their practical importance to Science and to Humankind, in developing an understanding of modern environments and the ancient rock record.

Applications of Foraminifera

Foraminifera have wide ranges of academic and economic applications, for example in environmental science and archaeology, and in petroleum, mining and engineering geology.  In environmental science and archaeology, their principal application is in the interpretation of environmental conditions, including  salinity (e.g., fresh-water, brackish or marine), hydrography  (e.g., supra-tidal, inter-tidal or sub-tidal), sedimentology (e.g., estuarine, deltaic or reefal), and  depth (e.g., marginal, shallow or deep marine).

The Environmental Archaeology of the Medieval Deposits of the River Fleet in the City of London

The Medieval deposits of the River Fleet in the City of London were subject to an environmental archaeological study in the 1970s.  Over 140 species of aquatic organisms were found to be present in the deposits, including Foraminifera such as Nonion germanicus  (pictured above, on the front cover of my book).  Most proved to be fresh-water to slightly brackish.  Associated rare, non-aquatic parasitic nematodes were interpreted as having been introduced into the deposits in dung dumped into the river by humans, alongside food waste and  what might be thought of as industrial waste, including  hide (waste from butchery or tannery) and horn cores (waste from glass manufacture).  The dumping of organic pollutants into the river evidently resulted initially in fertilisation, and in the proliferation of some opportunistic species such as Horned and Opposite-Leaved Pondweed.  However, it also resulted subsequently in poisoning and in the effective elimination of all species, as also indicated in the archive records for 1343.  In consequence, it was ordered in 1357 that “no man shall take … any manner of rubbish … or dung … to throw … into the rivers of the Thames and Fleet … .  And if any one should be found doing the contrary thereof, let him have the prison for his body, and other heavy punishment as well, at the discretion of the Mayor and the Aldermen”.

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