The University of Southampton

SOES3004 Microfossils, Environments and Time

Module Overview

Aims and Objectives

Module Aims

1. To give a general introduction to the various groups of microfossils, detailing their morphology, taxonomy, biology, and ecology. 2. To show how certain microfossil groups can be used in an applied manner for the solution of geological problems (such as biostratigraphy, palaeoecology, palaeoceanographic interpretation, proxies for climatic change, etc.). 3. To detail some of the industrial applications of microfossils, particularly those related to hydrocarbon exploration. 4. To provide a basic introduction to microfossil extraction/preparation methods 5. To demonstrate the utility of various microfossil groups in hydrocarbon exploration (source rock analyses, thermal maturity studies, etc.).

Learning Outcomes

Transferable and Generic Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • utilisation of stereo binocular,
  • transmitted and reflected light microscopes;
  • use of scanning electron microscope;
  • report writing
Subject Specific Intellectual and Research Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • practical experience of microfossil identification to species level;
  • compilation, utilisation and interpretation of biostratigraphic and palaeoenvironmental information;
  • an appreciation of how to prepare and mount micropalaeontological samples for observation, and the safety precautions necessary to observe during such preparations;
  • to have developed a background knowledge of micropalaeontological literature sources.
Learning Outcomes

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Assign a microfossil to its major taxonomic group (e.g. foram, ostracod, dinoflagellate, spore, pollen, etc.).
  • Be aware of, and to recognise, the main morphological and compositional features which allow assignation of an individual fossil to each group.
  • Draw basic stratigraphic conclusions about microfossil assemblages (e.g. age of rock unit, correlations, etc.)
  • Deduce palaeoecological and/or palaeoceanographic interpretations from different assemblages of microfossils.
  • Understand the applicability of particular microfossil groups to particular lithologies and particular geological time periods.
  • Determine which microfossil groups are most applicable to the solution of a variety of particular geological problems.


Lectures will introduce the various microfossil groups and detail their utility as important indicators of past environments by examining the ecology of living microplankton taxa and extrapolating this to the fossil record (palaeoecology, palaeoceanography). The applicability of different microfossil groups in providing both relative timescales (through zonal schemes) and biostratigraphic correlation will be detailed, as will the role of certain microfossils in understanding evolutionary processes (particularly in groups such as land plants). Microplankton as agents of global environmental change will also be investigated, especially with regard to fluxes of CaCO3 and C and hence to CO2 in the atmosphere. The microfossil groups which will be studied in the above context are those which form mineralised skeletons (calcareous, siliceous, phosphatic) and the organic-walled microfossils (known as palynomorphs).

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

Formal lectures (45 minute lectures): An outline of each lecture is provided prior to start of a lecture or on website/in manual. Each lecture systematically covers the main concepts and topics by the use of PowerPoint presentations (rarely using slides/overheads). Most lectures are complemented by extensively illustrated handout materials. Where relevant, lecturers’ own research experience in the appropriate fields is brought into the lecturing sessions. References to the applicable chapter of course text and/or other relevant journal articles are provided as essential reading for each lecture. Practical classes & demonstrations: Fully interactive practical classes are supported by staff and post-graduate demonstrators. On request, access to practical material for independent work is available. Most laboratory classes consist of a short introductory talk highlighting techniques to be employed and the goals to be attained. Practicals are a combination of microscope-based examinations of pre-picked microfossil slides, permanently-mounted strews of palynological residues, and temporary strew mounts (some made by you!). Practicals/demonstrations are integrated as closely as possible to the lecture course. Practical classes will be formally structured (i.e. there will be questions set!), whereas demonstration classes will provide material for examination on a more informal basis, in order that you can familiarise yourself with the bugs and beasties. Training in processing methods: An introduction to a variety of laboratory-based processing techniques in purpose-built laboratories. An integral part of this process will involve mentioning current COSHH safety regulations. Preparation methods used for scanning electron microscope observation of microfossils will be described, and practical slots will be organised to allow you to have the opportunity to see the electron microscope in use for microfossil analysis. Tutor support: All students are encouraged to discuss any aspect of the course with the relevant member of the lecturing staff, most of whom operate an 'open door' policy. Additional lectures/activities: The staff will inform you of any relevant research seminars Guest Lectures. A wide range of support can be provided for those students who have further or specific learning and teaching needs.

Practical classes and workshops33
Independent Study95
Total study time150


Assessment Strategy

Summative Assessment Methods Theory Examination (40%): A two hour written examination at the end of Semester 1. You will need to answer two (2) questions from the question paper (all past papers provided on the SOES3004/6022 Blackboard site) and the questions will require the integration of information from all parts of the course. Tests learning outcomes 3-6. Practical Examinations (60%): coursework marks will be based on two practical examinations: one smaller mid-Semester one on foraminifera, and one longer end-Semester 1 on palynology. You will need to examine picked/strew-mounted microscope slides and the questions will require the integration of information from all parts of the course. Tests Learning Outcomes 1-6. Formative assessment methods: Practical exercises & demonstrations (formative assessment): A series of practical exercises and demonstrations of material will be set during the course. These practicals will involve the examination of picked and strew-mounted microscope slides, and are provided as a way of initially familiarising you with the beasties that you are likely to come across in the preparation of your Sample Report. Those microfossil groups dealt with in greatest detail will be afforded practicals, whereas for those groups given lesser coverage, material will be made available for more casual observation. Tests learning outcomes 1-6. Attendance at practical classes is expected, as some of these may form the basis of questions in the web assessments, the written exam and the practical exam. A guided tour of the micropalaeontological laboratory facilities will be conducted, in addition to the opportunity to have hands-on experience of using the Scanning Electron Microscope for observation of microfossils. Tests learning outcomes 1-2. Time permitting, web-based self-assessments will be made available via Blackboard as a quick method of testing your on-going understanding of the module content. Tests learning outcomes 1-6.


Practical exercises & demonstrations


MethodPercentage contribution
Practical examination 60%
Theory examination  (2 hours) 40%

Linked modules


To study this module, you will need to have studied the following module(s):

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