A Time-Saving Taxonomic Tool

A new online taxonomy database has proved invaluable for both industrial and academic biostratigraphers.
This article appeared in Vol. 13, No. 6 - 2016


Researchers from University College London (UCL) have earned high praise for the money- and time-saving capabilities of a rigorous open-source online taxonomic database. Nannotax was developed in response to extensive user demand, from both academic and industrial biostratigraphers, for an online database which counters the discrepancies found when accessing information from multiple sources. 

  • (a) SEM image of a modern Helicosphaera carteri.

  • (b) SEM image of a single fossil coccolith.

  • (c) Typical species – Cyclicargolithus floridamus.

  • (d) Typical species – Cyclicargolithus floridamus.

Database Development 

Over 360 km of sediment core has been collected from across the world’s oceans via deep sea drilling since 1966. Packed with billions of microfossils, these cores provide one of the most detailed indicators of environmental and evolutionary change across millions of years. However, the variety and volume of taxonomic classification systems on which paleontologists rely pose a significant challenge when it comes to extracting and analyzing data with the requisite degree of accuracy. 

Cribrohantkenina inlfata. To address this issue a small UCL-based team with unique expertise – Professor Paul Bown, Dr. Jeremy Young and Dr. Jacqueline Lees – has been progressively developing a universally available, standardized system collating these taxonomic records since 2007. 

Calcareous nannofossils have been extensively used for biostratigraphy and in paleoceanographic research and data on them is scattered through a wide range of reports and academic publications. The web database draws heavily on microfossil occurrence records from the material recovered by the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) and the IODP’s previous incarnations, the Deep Sea Drilling Project (DSDP), the Ocean Drilling Program (ODP), and the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP1). 

“There’s nothing else like the IODP,” says Prof. Bown. “It has an enormous and unique archive that is invaluable for industrial and academic scientists.” 

Nannofossils are one of the key groups used for determining the age of marine sediments in paleoceanographic research, as well as in exploration for and exploitation of hydrocarbon resources. By providing a single authoritative guide to the taxonomy, which is openly accessible to anyone worldwide, Nannotax has made the use of these invaluable microfossils far easier. It covers virtually all described living and fossil species, and includes over 20,000 images. It is probably the most comprehensive online database for any group of fossils. 

One special feature of the database is that it is integrated with a separate project called Neptune. Lead by scientists from Berlin, Neptune has collated hundreds of thousands of occurrence records of microfossils from DSDP, ODP and IODP projects, and also includes other data published across a wide range of reports, literature and academic publications. Nannotax is an attempt to assemble and synthesize these scattered data sources so that the information is much more accessible. This data is presented on each page as plots of the occurrence frequency of the species, providing a unique and objective record of their distribution though time. 

Screen grab of a plot of occurrence data from IODP records.

A Reputable Resource 

According to Google Analytics, between September 2015 and October 2016, Nannotax was used for 66,000 sessions, equating to approximately 250 sessions every weekday. The age-dating resources and tools within the Nannotax system are used by specialists from multiple sectors, most notably the biostratigraphic consultancy sector, in both the UK and internationally. The degree of rigor and detail applied to all Nannotax entries means that practitioners can use nannofossils extracted by the IODP and other projects more effectively as stratigraphic indicators. It helps achieve higher temporal precision, and provides a resource that has enhanced expertise in the field. 

Biticinella breggiensis. Mike Styzen, Senior Biostratigraphic Advisor at Noble Energy Inc, has been an advocate and user of Nannotax from the very beginning. He has subsequently contributed many tips to the database via an inbuilt feature that allows experts to informally share useful ideas that might otherwise never be distributed. Mike added: “Nannotax is the first place I look when I’m presented with a nannoplankton taxon that I am unfamiliar with. I am always working on multiple projects, and I don’t have time to dig through old books and new literature, so Nannotax is a real time saver. 

“I have used it extensively in all of the areas I’ve worked, including the Eastern Mediterranean, West Africa, South America, The Caribbean, and the Falkland Plateau. The benefit is more reliable modeling of what we are drilling. In West Africa in particular I have data that ranges from 35 years old to freshly generated data. Nannotax is a key tool, allowing me to put together a picture of the basin histories, which means we can more efficiently develop the resources available in the area.” 

The time-saving benefits of Nannotax readily translate into monetary savings for companies such as Shell, because the database can provide answers in seconds rather than hours or days. This means that the efficiency of biostratigraphic work is optimized and the interpretations can inform operational decisions in a more timely and cost-effective way. 

Rui Da Gama, a biostratigrapher for Shell, added: “One of Nannotax’s other key strengths is its ability to reconcile historic taxonomic terms to their modern equivalents. This is really important when reviewing data from sites that were deemed not economically viable when originally drilled in, for example, the 1970s, but which may well be viable now given recent advances in extraction technology. There is no doubt whatever that interaction between the environmental research and oil and gas communities can be highly beneficial to both parties, and that governments should encourage and support both relevant research and closer interaction between them.” 

  • Screen grab of a typical index page.

Forams in the Future 

Following the success and associated strong endorsements of the project, the group at UCL recently secured funding to apply the same approach to a second major group of marine microfossils, planktonic foraminifera. The [email protected] system, similar to Nannotax, will provide a highly accessible and essential resource of authoritative taxonomic and stratigraphic information for both industrial biostratigraphers and academic paleoceanographers. 

This new database is currently under development and will be openly available online soon


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