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Citizen science: imaging microfossils for the Australian Museum

The Australian Museum’s newest citizen science project invites the public to help identify microfossils in scanning electron microscope images to help researchers better understand Australia’s past environment.

A fossil’s species and age provide important clues as to what past environments may have looked like, and how they have changed. In Australia there are many sites where we do not have sufficient fossil data to understand what the past environment was like. University of Canberra researchers are trying to rectify this by looking for microfossils, such as minuscule pollen, fungi and algae, in these locations instead.

This colour enhanced SEM image shows an ‘acritarch’ microfossil. The fossil was found at McGraths Flat. In the mid-Miocene (about 15 million years ago), McGraths Flat was a small oxbow lake in which organisms were rapidly encased in goethite. This mode of preservation not only produced fossils with exquisite details, it also allows SEM imaging of uncoated samples.

Microfossils cannot be seen with the naked eye, and so automatic scanning electron microscopy at Microscopy Australia’s Australian National University facility was used to image the samples, including anything that may be a microfossil in the process. The researchers are seeking public help to search through these images and identify the ones that contain microfossils to help speed up the process. These microfossils will provide the key to documenting the age and environmental conditions at a range of new locations.

Fellow NCRIS facility, the Atlas of Living Australia, is hosting the citizen science project using their crowdsourcing tool DigiVol which was developed in collaboration with the Australian Museum.

Nothofagidites cf. deminitus pollen from McGraths Flat, a recently discovered Lagerstätte near Gulgong (New South Wales). Captured using a FEI Quanta 650F variable-pressure field-emission scanning electron microscope. Image by A/Prof. Michael Frese, University of Canberra

This colour enhanced SEM image shows a small colony of fossilised yeast cells (orange). Almost all of the cells show bud and/or births scars (blue). The fossils were found at McGraths Flat, a recently discovered fossil Lagerstätte near Gulgong, New South Wales. Image by A/Prof Michael Frese, University of Canberra.