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What the Heck is a Biostratigrapher?

Jun. 24, 2015 by | Comments (3)
Jason Loxton in China during a 2010 research trip.

Jason Loxton during a 2010 research trip to study graptolites in China.

What is “biostratigraphy,” and what on Earth does it have to do with sharks…or with pancakes?

Listen to biostratigrapher Jason Loxton (my brother, and a Junior Skeptic contributor) answer these questions in a quick and breezy CBC radio interview (alternate link). Broadcast on Monday June 22, the interview summarizes Jason’s talk for the “Children’s University” public outreach event, titled “Sharks, Fossils and Meteors: How Geologists Gave the Earth a Birthday.” This free-to-the-public lecture for kids took place yesterday (June 23).

A lab instructor at Cape Breton University and Ph.D. candidate at Dalhousie University, Jason studies the taxonomy and distribution of Ordovician/Silurian graptolites—or “really boring-looking smudges,” he says, cheerfully. This eye-straining endeavor may be “unglamorous and decidedly not ‘trendy,'” as he describes it, but it is just the type of ongoing fossil detective work which has allowed generations of geologists to painstakingly piece together the history of our planet. This project, biostratigraphy, “uses fossils to divide the rock record into relative units of time.” And for that, modest fossils like Jason’s smudges are just the thing.

Jason explains,

As a general rule, the more useful fossils are the most boring fossils. The reason for that is, if you want to use a fossil and date it, you want it to be something which is small, easy to identify, widespread, and which spreads around the world really fast. So things like plankton, or spores from plants—those are really useful. Things like T.rex are going to be both really difficult to find at all, but also they’re usually isolated geographically, just like you might find a Kodiak bear on Kodiak Island but you’re not going to find it somewhere else. So to correlate things, to come up with a global record, we use really boring small things.

And what is the “punchline” from the scientific projects of studying the boring and the small, probing the origins of rocks from space, and reading ever more closely the geologic record? The Earth was born “about 4.54 billion years” ago, Jason explains. Listen and find out how we know that!

Update: Cape Breton University tweeted a picture from the popular talk:

Daniel Loxton

Daniel Loxton is the Editor of INSIGHT at and of Junior Skeptic, the 10-page kids’ science section bound within Skeptic magazine. Daniel has been an avid follower of the paranormal literature since childhood, and of the skeptical literature since his youth. He is also an award-winning author. Read Daniel’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.

3 responses to “What the Heck is a Biostratigrapher?”

  1. Malcolm Goodson says:

    Antoine, perhaps you are not used to seeing ‘advertorial comments’. The same comment gets plastered over a wide-ranging series of blogs just to pick up hits to the authors own blog – note the link at the foot of the post. With due deference, I shall not append a link to mine :)

  2. Antoine Wonders says:

    As a biostratigrapher, I am racking my brain to see how Berthajane’s comment relates to this sense-making post. I’m quite sure this is not a matter of lack of intelligence on my side.

  3. Berthajane Vandegrift says:

    I don’t find deterministic materialism any more believable than any other religion. They are obviously just as evangelical.

    Mathematics is not a Divine Revelation. It is a game, with rigid, complicated rules, invented by men. However scientists decided that the universe must have been created in accordance with their mathematical rules. They “prove” their theories (to each other’s satisfaction) mathematically. They also “disprove” them periodically, and challenge each other to think up new ones. Surely the reason the public doesn’t laugh at some of these “theories”, (many of them really are no more plausible than religious myths) is because most laymen are too intimidated by all those obscure, complex mathematical rules to laugh at them. However, if life is spontaneous and unpredictable, it will never be described by a human invention such as mathematics. If life has a creative aspect, mathematical formulas will never add to our understanding of it. If free will exists, no mathematical equation, such as E=MC squared, will ever express it.

    Berthajane Vandegrift

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