Talking with… Amy Jones

Interview by: J. D. Dixon

Our next interview invites micropalaeontologist Amy Jones to chat about the big impact that tiny organisms can have, what can be recovered from a quarry in Germany, sampling cores in Texas, and her canine babies.

Amy Jones.

Thank you for agreeing to talk with us, Amy. So, could you please let us know about yourself?

“Hi! My name is Amy Jones, and I am a PhD student and Research Associate at the University of Birmingham. I study calcareous nannofossils, teeny-tiny, microscopic phytoplankton that have lived in our oceans for over 215 million years, and can help tell us a lot about the ocean-climate relationships through Earth history. My academic journey began back in 2012 when I started my BSc Palaeontology course at Portsmouth University. Once completed, I was thrilled to be accepted onto MSc Applied and Petroleum Micropalaeontology course here at the University of Birmingham and after this, I began my PhD in 2016, so I am close to finishing now! Outside of work and study, I enjoy hiking, photography and painting, very different to sitting at a desk or microscope! I adore house plants too, and currently my flat is overgrown with my ever-expanding collection. I love animals, and have done all my life – I am very lucky to be “mum” to my dogs, Rocky (golden lab) and Leo (lab x collie).”

Leo and Rocky.

When and why did you decide you wanted to be a palaeontologist/geologist?

“From a young age, I was always super inquisitive about nature and was curious about the world around us. Often I would annoy my teachers with my lack of enthusiasm for lessons like maths and instead only ever wanted to do history or geography! I had a fascination with dinosaurs and all things earth science from almost as far back as I can remember, I was obsessed! I wasn’t even aware I could get a degree in palaeontology until it came to applying for university – up until that point I wanted to do zoology because of my strong love for animals. Knowing I could pursue my dreams in palaeontology, I was thrilled and have never looked back since.”

You work with calcareous nannoplankton and are looking at diversity changes in the Paleogene and Neogene periods, as well as how climate change can affect these micro communities. Could you explain what this may mean to readers as well as some of your research and findings?

“Through time, like all organisms, there is evolution and changes that occur under certain pressures of change. In the world of coccolithophores, these changes can be due to ocean temperature, nutrient availability, atmospheric CO2 levels, pH, light availability, etc. Ultimately, these are linked to changes in climate which can be on a regional or global scale. Calcareous Nannoplankton/Nannofossils  (fossil terms for coccolithophores), are exclusively marine and therefore are mainly subjected to oceanographic and atmospheric changes. Different species have specific tolerances to their living environments, some prefer higher nutrients, some do not. Those that prefer a higher nutrient level, for example, may flourish and proliferate under these conditions, while those species (or even genera) that do not like higher nutrient levels may decrease in abundance or go extinct.”

An example of what coccolithophores look like under an SEM and light microscope.

“So, let’s take the Eocene-Oligocene Transition (EOT) as an example of global change that affected nannofossil communities, this is also some of my PhD research. The EOT (~ 34.5 Ma – 35.5 Ma) was the precursor to the rapid onset of global cooling and one of the most significant climate transitions of the Cenozoic. The EOT is closely associated with the major advancement of ice sheets in Antarctica, global cooling, a reorganisation of ocean circulation, and an altered biogeochemical cycle – not too fun if you’re an exclusively marine organism! Because this happened very quickly, many of the nannofossil species could not adapt fast enough to these new conditions. However, some species actually preferred these changing environments – and we use the abundance of nannofossils within the samples to gauge what is happening environmentally. Using different statistical analyses, we were able to pin down the species which had the most “environmental importance” to use as markers for specific conditions.
This research was completed from sediments from an onshore core (NKK1) from Java, Indonesia. Our data are the first study of calcareous nannofossil response in the Indo-Pacific Warm Pool to global cooling across the EOT.”

Environmentally important species from NKK1 and how the nannofossils’ relative abundance changed through time and across the EOT (grey line). Light blue arrows indicate the species which are oligotrophic (lower tolerance to nutrients), the dark blue arrows show eutrophic species (nutrient-loving), and the green arrows are mesotrophic species (those in-between).

“From this study we were able to come to some conclusions:
1. There was substantial nutrient increase supply to the tropical oceans at the start of the EOT – 34.5 Ma.
2. Community restructuring and extinctions of nannofossils was at its most intense at 34.4 Ma, which included many warm-water oligotrophic species.
For the Neogene aspect of my PhD, we are investigating the last 15 Ma to determine the effects of global cooling with respect to nannofossil diversity and community change. This is a global investigation, with nine sites across low-, mid-, and high latitudes – all really exciting stuff!”

That’s incredibly detailed work, so when did you first come across this topic and realise it was what you wanted to do a PhD studying?

“I realised early into my undergraduate studies that I knew I wanted to do a PhD, even though it was quite far away in the future at that point. During my second year of my undergrad degree, we were introduced to micropalaeo and I was hooked! From then on, I based my dissertation on micropalaeontology, which led me to Birmingham to apply for MSc Micropalaeontology. I thoroughly enjoyed my time and experience during my MSc studies. I had always had a keen eye for nannofossils and because of this, I based my MSc dissertation project on the palaeoecology and diversity of nannofossils in Java, Indonesia (as mentioned a bit above), and once I saw that my PhD was essentially an extension of my MSc project – I immediately applied!”

What do you hope to advance on to after your PhD?

“I’m a big believer in fate – I’ll wait and see what life throws at me! There are two avenues in front of me right now – stay in academia or move into industry.”

If your studies have allowed much fieldwork, what would you say has been your best fieldwork experience?

“During a field trip to Germany in 2015, the other students and I got the opportunity to visit a quarry with Holzmaden shale – one of the Lagerstätte sites which yields fossils of exceptional preservation. While we were there, the workers had set up explosives to detonate one side of the quarry. Obviously from a safe distance, we got to observe the detonation of the explosives and see some of the rock face come down! After this, we were able to look through the chunks of shale that came down and as a group effort – we found the partial skeleton of an Ichthyosaur! The skeleton was disarticulated and scattered across many of the different shale blocks, but we were able to retrieve mostly ribs, vertebrae, and some of the fore and hind paddle – no skull though. It was an incredible experience!”

What would you say was your proudest palaeo moment?

“It has got to be being accepted onto my PhD. I cried when I found out the news! I was so extremely happy and delighted to be able to continue my passion in palaeobiology.”

Studying your passion is brilliant and we’re glad you continued to do so. Next, could you tell us a little bit about Texas? How was your experience visiting for the IODP event early last year?

“My visit to Texas A&M University took place in January 2020. I was lucky enough to go with one of the research fellows, Dr. Mariem Saavedra, and she is also my co-investigator on my research placement. The aim of the trip was to sample the cores from Mariem’s IODP Expedition to the Southern Ocean in the Summer of 2019. We had a mission to collect over 50,000 samples from specific intervals over hundreds of sections of cores and so the name “sample party” given to this event was a busy time! It was a pleasure to meet the scientists who sailed on the expedition and see some colleagues I had not seen in some time again. Overall, it was an enjoyable trip, although we didn’t manage to hit the 50,000-sample target, we hope to have another sample party hopefully after COVID-19.”

Amy, Mariem, and the cabinet of cores.

That sounds immense, we hope you do manage to get another party across the pond. Continuing, how did it feel when you got your first paper published?

“It was a really happy moment for me. After months of hard work, research, and data collection, to see it finished and accepted by the journal was an incredible moment!”

What’s one thing you’d like to be involved in or discover in the future of palaeontology?

“Climate change is something certainly close to my heart and being in micropalaeontology you are readily assumed to be involved with the oil and gas industry. Although many micropalaeontologists do go into industry – we aren’t the bad guys! Something I would like to be involved with in the future of micropaleontology is finding cleaner, more renewable methods in harvesting energy sources. This can include greater energy efficiency, carbon capture and storage (CCS), and alternative energies (renewables).”

Do you have any helpful tips or wise words for people who want to become palaeontologists?

“If you’re passionate about it – nothing will stop you! There are many aspects to palaeontology and palaeobiology that some students don’t always realise when starting their career in palaeo, for example, to be a palaeontologist, you must also be a geologist, a biologist, or sometimes a botanist – and the list can truly go on. As long as those who are beginning their route into palaeontology understand it’s “not all about dinosaurs”, and one can accept and embrace that, you’ll embark on a successful and fulfilling career in palaeontology. There are so many other avenues and intriguing learning processes that are fundamental to becoming a palaeontologist, it can take you to a variety of opportunities. Take mine for example, started with a love for the palaeo-world and subject, and then moved into becoming a palaeoclimatologist and palaeoceanographer. The best part is, I still get to look at fossils!”

Finally, what’s a weird palaeo fact you think people should know?

“OK – so not technically a palaeo fact – but it is something I think people should know! The role of phytoplankton in regulating climate is crucial! Phytoplankton in our oceans today offer up to 50% of the oxygen in our atmosphere, so thank the phytoplankton for the air you breathe! Many people think it is the Amazon rainforest that contributes to helping climate change. This is a fair point, it is a carbon sink and does emit oxygen, however, the Amazon only regulates the Amazon! Thank the phytoplankton roaming the oceans for being the largest carbon sink, climate regulator, and oxygen supplier. Which is another important reason why we should all try to help save our oceans during this crucial time in climate change, their health and the diversity that roams within is so vitally important!”

I’d like to say thank you again to Amy for helping us comprehend the crucial role these tiny creatures play in understanding palaeoclimates and providing insight into her interesting work. For more information about Amy, or to find out how to contact her directly, visit her Twitter.