Oops

Boring to stare at but so important.  Image courtesy of the USGS.

Boring to stare at but so important.

Image courtesy of the USGS.

Palaeontology matters. I know, as a palaeontologist myself I am most certainly biased, but let's face it, if we want to understand the sorts of conditions that the planet can throw at us in the future it is important (vital even) to know what it threw at our ancestors. Some of this ancient information can be gleaned by analysing the bones of impressive fossils like those of the dinosaurs but, more often than not, palaeontologists gaze at tiny* shelled organisms called foraminifera that float about in the sea and make food for themselves from sunlight. For decades, analysis of foraminfera shells have told us a great deal about what the chemistry of the ocean was like when they were alive. Now a new study is revealing that we've been making a terrible terrible error.

When researchers try to work out how old a fossil foraminifera shell is, they use the carbon in it to determine age. Known as carbon dating, this analysis method is straightforward as long as the carbon in the shell of the foraminifera is the same carbon that was put their by its cells during life. Normally, when an animal dies, there is no way for new carbon to make its way into its body but the team behind the new work is showing that this is not entirely true. When foraminifera die, their shells fall to the bottom of the ocean and ultimately get squashed under layers and layers of sediment. It turns out that this squashing  process leads carbon from the surrounding environment to ooze into the foraminifera fossils and that this, in turn, badly throws off the techniques that we have been using to date them.

While you've probably never heard of formainifera before** this finding is a big deal and suggests that a huge chunk of our data on ancient climates is wrong. You can read more in The Economist article that I wrote on this here.  

*And frankly, rather boring. 

**Understandable of course given how unbelievably boring they are to stare at in lab