Planktonic Foraminifera@Nannotax: A web resource for foraminifera taxonomy and biostratigraphy

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Earth Sciences


Planktonic foraminifera are minute, single-celled, marine microorganisms that float in the upper layers of the open ocean, producing chambered calcareous shells. They are an important part of the modern marine ecosystem and after death their shells sink to become one of the principal components of deep-sea deposits (microfossils). These fossils have a geological record stretching back almost 200 million years and they provide a simple and quick means of age-dating the rocks in which they are found. For this reason they are of great importance to a wide range of earth scientists, including industrial biostratigraphers. Using the small samples that come from subsurface boreholes, biostratigraphers are able to identify the oil and gas reservoir and source rocks of specific ages and can precisely steer while drilling to maximise hydrocarbon production. However, the effective use of foraminifera microfossils for age dating is dependent upon the availability of up-to-date and reliable information concerning their classification (taxonomy - which species is which, and why?), their ecology (which species live where, when and why?) and their geological history (which species lived when and where?). This type of taxonomic skill is in short supply and is difficult to acquire owing to the essential data being locked up in academic texts of limited availability - especially outside research institutions. Increasingly, end-users expect to be able to find such data via the internet but they are poorly served by current systems. In order to widen access to this crucial information we will develop a web resource called Planktonic Foraminfera@Nannotax or PF@N that we hope will become the online reference source for anyone needing to obtain basic to specialist information on planktonic foraminifera. The project will build on an online resource called Nannotax that we previously developed for another microfossil group, calcareous nannofossils, using NERC knowledge exchange funding. This resource has proved highly successful as shown by usage statistics and personal feedback. The foraminifera information will come from a combination of newly compiled data for the last 30 million years (Oligocene to Present) and a previous Cretaceous to Eocene compilation from an older and now out-of-date database called Chronos. The availability of this Chronos content will considerably aid the development of the database content. When completed, PF@N will provide a comprehensive listing of living and fossil planktonic foraminifera taxa ranging over 120 million years of evolutionary history. Each species will have a short description, age data, multiple illustrations, bibliographic references and original descriptions. There will be identification keys and linked pages providing information on study methods. Our Principal Investigators and Project Partners will ensure that expert information, much of it derived from NERC-funded UK research, will be incorporated into the resource and our industrial partners will 'test-drive' the system and provide feedback and applied expertise. We think that the development of this system is essential to the effective use of foraminifera in the hydrocarbon industry, but also to their application more broadly, for example, as used by palaeoceanographers, geochemists, palaeobiologists, plankton biologists and oceanographers. By removing the barriers to learning foraminifera taxonomy, identifying specimens and obtaining accurate information about species, we think that existing users will be able to expand their expertise and that this will also open the way to a range of new users.

Planned Impact

Our core output will be the Planktonic Foraminifera@Nannotax (PF@N) system, which will be employed by a wide range of end-users who will gain access to a compilation of authoritative taxonomic and stratigraphic information. Access to this information will improve the application of the planktonic foraminifera microfossil group, accelerating identification, increasing confidence in identifications, improving stratigraphic precision for origination and extinction levels, and enabling the communication of ideas through reference to open access images and datasets. These benefits will be particularly obvious in commercial settings were access to academic literature is limited, e.g., in non-standard working conditions, such as offshore oil rigs and drill ships, where previously, information was limited to a handful of key books and papers. In such cases micropalaeontologists are guiding drilling decisions and the PF@N information will optimise the biostratigraphic analysis and reduce risk and uncertainty. There are also obvious benefits to other users, such as early career biostratigraphers who are still training and learning; scientists with little taxonomic expertise but who nevertheless are required to use foraminifera or assess foraminiferal data (e.g. geochemists, palaeoceanographers, oceanographers, biologists); scientists and students in countries or institutions with limited access to library resources; and a wide spectrum of non-specialists who have interest in, or are required to investigate, oceanic organisms. By removing the barriers to learning foraminifera taxonomy, identifying specimens and obtaining accurate information about species, we think that existing users will be enabled to expand their expertise and that PF@N will also open the way to a range of new users.


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Description The aim of this project is to provide an authoritative guide to the biodiversity, stratigraphy and taxonomy of fossil forming plankton. It builds on an earlier project, which developed the Nannotax website ( for calcareous nannoplankton and coccolithophores. This second project focuses on the planktonic foraminifera group and the developing website went online in January 2017 ( The provision of accurate taxonomic and stratigraphic information on these key microfossil group is vital for their effective use in industrial biostratigraphy and academic palaeoceanography/oceanography and so there is a very broad community of end-users. Industrial biostratigraphers, in particular, benefit from rapid access to authoritative taxonomic data, which expedite effective use of microfossils in the drilling and management of oil and gas boreholes, contributing to the competitiveness of the UK biostratigraphic consultancy sector. Microfossils play a uniquely important role in geoscience, being important components of the modern plankton, abundant microfossils of great practical value in industrial and academic biostratigraphy, and widely used geochemical palaeoceanographic proxies. In all these roles the efficacy of their use is underpinned by taxonomy. Our Nannotax website has been live for a number of years and we have clear testimonial and analytical evidence for its widespread use. For example, Google Analytics (September 2015-October 2016) indicate very high levels of usage, 66,000 sessions, equating to approximately 250 sessions every weekday, and long average session-durations of 13.5 minutes. Geographic usage patterns closely match known centres of industrial use and academic study (e.g. North Wales, Houston, London, Birmingham, Lagos, Rio, etc.).
Exploitation Route The online site will form a focus for improvement of planktonic foraminifera taxonomy and stratigraphic application. In addition the software platform is suitable for other groups and we are investigating possible collaborations with other users.
Sectors Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Energy,Environment

Description The website is being by commercial biostratigraphers as a source of reference data and for staff training. The site has only been publicly available online since January 2017, but we are already receiving very positive feedback from colleagues in the industrial sector.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Energy
Title mikrotax taxonomy content management sytem 
Description Mikrotax is a system to deliver taxonomic information on microfossils via the web. It is based on a combination of MySQL database, animate collection, php program and javascript functions. It is based on the system developed for the nannotax website but has been greatly enhanced during the follow-on planktonic foraminfere @ nannotax project. Specifically the system has been developed within the follow-on project to be a robust web-application which allows content to be developed by collaborating user-editors via the web. 
Type Of Technology Webtool/Application 
Year Produced 2016 
Impact The prime impact has been enabling the pforams@mikrotax site to be developed and to allow a team of user-editors from the USA (Smithsonian Institute) and Italy (Milan University) to develop and maintain a major part of the site. In addition the software is now available for other users and we are investigating potential further applications - including with calcareous dinoflagellates, acritarchs and pteropods. 
Description Planktonic foraminifera pforams@mikrotax Project Partner workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact This was the first Project Partner meeting to discuss feedback on the newly developed web resource ( In particularly, we wanted to engage with industry project partners who are one of our main target end-user groups. We also invited relevant UK academics in order to increase the industry-university interaction.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016