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the last 30 million years (Oligocene to Present) and a previous Cretaceous to Eocene compilation from an older and now out-of-date database called Chronos.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 was 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 has focused 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 very clear testimonial and analytical evidence for its widespread use. For example, Google Analytics show current usage at very high levels, equating to approximately usage at ~300 sessions/day (average duration 12.3 minutes. This usage level has been maintained and showed increases over the last 3 or 4 years. Geographic usage patterns closely match known centres of industrial use and academic study (e.g. North Wales, Houston, London, Birmingham, Lagos, Rio, etc.). Although the new mikrotax website has only been live for a little more than a year and is still being developed (we have one major data input to complete in the next month or so) it is rapidly becoming established as the prime online source of information on these key microfossils. Google Analytics tracking of site use indicate that over the 12 months from March 2017 to February 2018 the site had just over 6000 users, each on average visiting the site 4 times and spending an average of 11 minutes on the site per visit. Of these, UK users are the largest group (20% of all sessions) with major usage also from the United States, (12%), Indonesia (7%), Italy (7%), Brazil (6%), Mexico (5%), Iran (3%) and France (3%) - largely reflecting centres of industrial applied micropalaeontology. Both of these sites now represent the go-to resource for taxonomic information on this widely used plankton group.
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. We are also planning on expanding these websites to provide authoritative information on stratigraphic data for microfossil species.
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 Acritax 
Description Acritax is a database of information on acritarchs (Palaeozoic organic-walled fossil phytoplankton). Initial content is a very large collection of scanned index cards providing comprehensive index of fossil acritarch taxonomy and published occurrence records. It is being developed to include a wider range of content (images, text decorations etc.). This is a development from the previous nannotax and pforams@mikrotax projects. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2018 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact This database provides the first step toward development of comprehensive online documentation of acritarchs. 
Title pforams@mikrotax 
Description Pforams@mikrotax is an online taxonomic database of planktonic foraminifera. It aims to provide a comprehensive source of information for industrial and academic scientists needing information on planktonic foraminifera species. It provides tools to help identify species or to look up the characteristics of species. Coverage includes data on original descriptions of ca 2500 taxa, and on modern taxon concepts for ca 1150 taxa. It is illustrated by ca 6000 images (most with 3 subimages). Features of the database include advancd search using morphological characters &/or geological time interval; plotting of occurrence-frequency data from the Neptune database; plotting of evolutionary trees. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2017 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact The database has now become the standard online reference source for the field, with >100 users per day (source Google Analytics). 
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 foraminfera @ 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. In addition the system is being developed to act as broader hub for integrating data on these microfossils especially through collaboration with the researchers in Berlin to integrate data from deep-sea drilling (Neptune project with data from DSDP, ODP, IODP). 
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, radiolaria 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
Description pforams@mikrotax - end of project meeting 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact To mark the end of the NERC funded phases of the pforams@mikrotax a user group meeting as held at University College London on 21st November 2018. This was attended by about 20 micropaleontologists from across the UK including senior academics, post-graduate students and industrial biostratigraphers. Issues covered included review of the project, plans for mandating and developing the website, plans follow-on projects.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018