The Puget Sound Foram Project is run under the supervision of Dr. Liz Nesbitt, Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology and Micropaleontology.
"Forams" is short for foraminifera. These are marine protists (single-celled organisms) that are typically <0.5 mm in size and feed on minute particles in the water or from the sediment. They build shells (tests) made either of small grains of sand or silt glued together with an organic cement or of calcium carbonate secreted by the organism itself.
Forams are ubiquitous in marine environments. They can be planktonic, that isfloating at different depths in the open ocean. Or they can be benthic, that is living on or just below the sediment surface at the bottom of the ocean. Many are characteristic of certain environments. For example they are sensitive to water temperature, thus some plankontic foraminifera are always found in tropical water while others prefer to live in very cold polar seas. . Benthic foraminifera also have their preferred habitats. Some live on the sediment surface, some live below the sediment surface and some attach themselves to seaweed or other organisms – even other forams. Some foraminifera live in deep water, others shallow water. In addition, some benthic foraminifera are known to be tolerant of adverse conditions such as low oxygen, pollution and sewer effluent, whereas others are not at all tolerant and disappear when the going gets tough.
Because foraminifera are nearly ubiquitous in marine and estuarine sediments and they respond to environmental stresses in the species composition of their assemblages and in the chemical composition of their shells (called tests), they are ideal for environmental monitoring. They have been used successfully for this purpose in many other parts of the world, including Nova Scotia, Chesapeake Bay, the Gulf of Mexico and Venice, Italy. This is the first time, however, that they have been used here in Puget Sound.
Here are some websites that provide good background information on foraminifera and micropaleontology.
In 2007 the Burke Museum was contacted by the Washington Department of Ecology (WaDOE) which offered to give us sediment samples they collected as part of their annual Puget Sound Ambient Monitoring Program (PSAMP). The samples dated back to 1997, and were intended for analysis of foraminifera. Since the Burke has the only collection of fossil and modern foraminifera in the Pacific Northwest, and also has a long history of working with foraminifera, we were deemed the logical recipient of these samples. We accepted this offer and have been receiving newly collected sediment samples each year since. We now have >900 samples that we are studying.
Our goal is to use forams to develop a tool for the evaluation and monitoring of Puget Sound ecosystems. Because forams are easily extracted from sediments, their use is an inexpensive way to keep an eye on the Sound; ultimately we would like to involve citizens’ groups who could be trained in the techniques and could become integral in monitoring conditions.
Since we first started receiving samples, a number of Burke Museum volunteers and University of Washington students have worked on the project, helping assess the efficacy of Puget Sound forams as environmental indicators. They have washed sediment samples, picked the forams out of them, identified and counted the organisms and performed simple statistical calculations on a few samples from parts of the Sound that have been heavily influenced by human activities. Presently we are applying for funding that will enable us to hire a full time post-doctoral foram expert to train and supervise student workers to expand the research and conduct outreach activities. Ultimately, we would like forams to become a permanent part of efforts to care for Puget Sound, and we would like to involve a substantial sector of the public in this activity.