What We Can Learn From the Earth's Tiniest Fossils

When it comes to fossils, size doesn't matter; you can learn a lot even from really, really small ones. Among the tiniest fossils on Earth are single-celled, shelled marine organisms called foraminifera, which go back about 650 million years and are only about the size of the period at the end of this sentence. Scientists use foram fossils to analyze how Earth's climate has changed over time. "They're very sensitive indicators of environmental change," Neil Landman, curator in the Division of Palentology at the American Museum of Natural History, says in the latest episode of the museum's Shelf Life series.

"One way in which foraminifera can tell us something is by chemical analysis of the shells," research associate Ellen Thomas says. "You can look at the isotopic composition of the oxygen and the carbon and trace element concentrations in the shell. That means that we can say things about direct temperature of the past."

This analysis can tell scientists all kinds of things, from the size of the polar ice caps at the time the foram was fossilized to how much photosynthesis was happening in the ocean—and, therefore, the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. "If you look at reconstructions of climate ... in Wikipedia, for instance, then you'll see wiggly lines that tell you something about the climate of, say, the last 70 to 100 million years or so," Thomas says. "Those wiggly lines are all derived from from the analysis of foraminifera."

Back in the mid-20th century, Landman says, "the American Museum was the focus of foram study ... we have a very important collection here." Thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation, the museum is rehousing the specimen slides and creating a digital catalog of the organisms, complete with photographs and 50 3D CT scans. "Forams are so cool because they're such tiny objects, yet they have so many complex features," says Shaun Mahmood, one of the interns working on the project. The CT scans show that "something the size of a grain of rice suddenly has 100 chambers that you didn't even know where there." Scientists can use those models to take measurements and even 3D print them—much, much bigger than the real creatures—to study. 

The project is important, Thomas says, because scientists "can use Earth's history and foraminifera in Earth's history to learn how life on Earth reacted to those events in the past and to help to predict how we are dealing with the future."

By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Photo of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, Purchased for $10, Could Be Worth Millions
By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Several years ago, Randy Guijarro paid $2 for a few old photographs he found in an antiques shop in Fresno, California. In 2015, it was determined that one of those photos—said to be the second verified picture ever found of Billy the Kid—could fetch the lucky thrifter as much as $5 million. That story now sounds familiar to Frank Abrams, a lawyer from North Carolina who purchased his own photo of the legendary outlaw at a flea market in 2011. It turns out that the tintype, which he paid $10 for, is thought to be an image of Billy and Pat Garrett (the sheriff who would eventually kill him) taken in 1880. Like Guijarro’s find, experts say Abrams’s photo could be worth millions.

The discovery is as much a surprise to Abrams as anyone. As The New York Times reports, what drew Abrams to the photo was the fact that it was a tintype, a metal photographic image that was popular in the Wild West. Abrams didn’t recognize any of the men in the image, but he liked it and hung it on a wall in his home, which is where it was when an Airbnb guest joked that it might be a photo of Jesse James. He wasn’t too far off.

Using Google as his main research tool, Abrams attempted to find out if there was any famous face in that photo, and quickly realized that it was Pat Garrett. According to The New York Times:

Then, Mr. Abrams began to wonder about the man in the back with the prominent Adam’s apple. He eventually showed the tintype to Robert Stahl, a retired professor at Arizona State University and an expert on Billy the Kid.

Mr. Stahl encouraged Mr. Abrams to show the image to experts.

William Dunniway, a tintype expert, said the photograph was almost certainly taken between 1875 and 1880. “Everything matches: the plate, the clothing, the firearm,” he said in a phone interview. Mr. Dunniway worked with a forensics expert, Kent Gibson, to conclude that Billy the Kid and Mr. Garrett were indeed pictured.

Abrams, who is a criminal defense lawyer, described the process of investigating the history of the photo as akin to “taking on the biggest case you could ever imagine.” And while he’s thrilled that his epic flea market find could produce a major monetary windfall, don’t expect to see the image hitting the auction block any time soon. 

"Other people, they want to speculate from here to kingdom come,” Abrams told The New York Times of how much the photo, which he has not yet had valuated, might be worth. “I don’t know what it’s worth. I love history. It’s a privilege to have something like this.”

[h/t: The New York Times]

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