At first glance, they may not look like much; but an ant thorax here and a shred of a beetle’s wing there are tiny microfossils that can actually help to decode big clues about modern climate change mysteries. Scientists working in the La Brea tar pits are focusing in on little fossils that were once considered totally unimportant to paleontologists. Now, researchers are realizing that these itty bitty microfossils can unlock important pieces of information about how the climate changed in the ice age-and how it’s changing today.
The microfossils help to show scientists how the climate has progressively changed throughout history and by studying the fossils carefully, important patterns begin to emerge that paint a more complete picture of how weather patterns shifted during the age from which the fossils hail. By examining even a fragment of bone, for example, researchers can see that it was worn away by a particular species of bug that only thrives in a warm climate. By studying the patterns that exist among the fossils, paleontologists may be able to make predictions about the effects of modern climate patterns.
John Southon of UC Irvine confirms that studying these microfossils can lead to revelations about our own climate. “The ultimate aim is to understand how the whole ecosystem responded to change in the past — what thrived, what went extinct, when and why,” he said. “The answers can help us make more intelligent predictions about our own future.”
John Harris of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County says the weather patterns can reveal how the climate affected the prehistoric ecosystem. “For decades we collected and presented statue-like examples of the mega-fauna of the past,” he said. “Now, we’re attempting to preserve a whole prehistoric ecosystem and chronicle how it changed over time.”
Inside the La Brea tar pits, thousands of pieces of fossils and other materials are being uncovered. The microfossils often represent the remains of the little bugs and larvae that accompanied big animals, like saber-tooth cats, when the larger specimens went to the great beyond. These tiny living creatures certainly never knew they would hold the keys to unlocking a vivid picture of the ecosystem of the Pleistocene Epoch, but researcher say these microfossils can decode modern climate change mysteries even more thoroughly than can the bigger creatures like wooly mammoths and big cats.
Luis Chiappe is the vice president of research and collections at the Natural History Museum. He says that the small fragments they possess are uncovering spectacular amounts of information that can’t be gleaned from even the largest skeleton. “These tiny bits and pieces may not look exciting, but they have become the coolest things on this planet,” he said. “The menageries of insects, lizards and snakes emerging from our excavations are telling stories you can’t get from a mammoth skeleton alone.”
According to Stephen Culver of the University of California at Berkeley, being able to make predictions from the study of past organisms can greatly benefit us by allowing us to glimpse what the future might hold:
micropalaeontologists are increasingly turning that basic tenet around to the past is the key to the future. In other words,if we can understand how organisms in the past responded to environmental changes then we can use that information to predict how future natural or anthropogenic environmental change might affect the Earth s biota… It also demonstrates the predictive side of science; for example, what might happen if a particular pollutant is introduced to an estuary, or, on a much larger scale, what might happen to coastal ecosystems if sea-level rose as a result of anthropogenic global warming and subsequent collapse and melting of polar ice sheets.
One of the more exciting finds from the tar pits is the remains of a saber tooth cat, who suffered from arthritis and met his demise while chasing his lunch. His skull was brimming with thousands of tiny microfossils, which can help scientists further decode modern climate change mysteries.
By: Rebecca Savastio