Juan Manuel Usera

usera-1Lucía Sapiña

An iguanodon, a cetiosaurus, pteranodons… the old prints decorating Juan Manuel Usera’s office would be a delight for any kid. He is Full Professor of Palaeontology at the University of Valencia. There are stacks of papers everywhere, however, and they are a good example of the volume of work carried out from this reduced space in the department of Geology. This year, the specialist in foraminifera was in charge of the course opening of the University of Valencia with the master class «Palaeontology, Quo Vadis».

Why did you choose the future of palaeontology as the topic for your conference?
If the topic had been really scientific, it would have reached very few people. Talking about the development of palaeontology, I thought people would understand how ideas about fossils have changed since the times of ancient Greece until today. That is easy to capture by anyone in the audience.

And what can we glimpse of that future, in this moment of recession?
The fact is that today palaeontology is not just going out to the countryside looking for fossils. Now you take your fossil and you do all kinds of things to it: isotope analysis, microstructure analysis…

And do you need more resources for that kind of research?
This line of research is way more expensive than the other one. That other one was fieldwork, lab work and not much else. That is why I said in my conference that governments are the ones who could finance it.

Then is the work of a palaeontologist today more lab work than backpack and mountain?
Yes, there’s a lot of laboratory work. Although there is a whole generation of palaeontologists who prefer going to the field and mountains to find fossils.

When one thinks of palaeontology, it is easy to think of the great fossils of dinosaurs. You, however, are specialist in foraminifera, which are diminutive organisms. What peaked your interest for such small fossils?
Well, in geology we studied a subject called micropalaeontology, and nothing is more beautiful than a microfossil. The structures are spectacular…

I have to recognize that I googled for images of foraminifera and was surprise by their beauty.
Even other groups like radiolaria, silicoflagellates… are perfect structures that had been copied over and over again by architects, structures of enormous consistency. I don’t know if you have heard about Emiliano Aguirre, the discoverer of Atapuerca… He taught me Quaternary and Human Palaeontology. When I told him I wanted to devote my career to micropalaeontology, the topic of the Mediterranean Sea desiccation, the Messinian crisis, was on everyone’s lips, and he brought me some samples of marine clays from Niebla (Huelva) that belonged to that border of the Miocene. I prepared them, cleaned them and there were such beautiful groups, really beautiful, of foraminifera… some benthic, other planktonic… and I fell in love right there and then.

  usera-4Lucía Sapiña
usera-2Lucía Sapiña  


«Labs were created all over the world and all of us worked there, in the oil industry»

What can we learn from foraminifera? Why are they so important?
They are very specialized protists. The kind of pseudopods they have is very special, with microtubules in which currents form in such a way that all the food particles surrounding it move towards the digestive vacuoles. That is a unique feature of foraminifera. And then, they can have sex or not. In stable environments, they are sexless. As there is a lot of competence with other organisms, it keeps developing and growing, but it does not reproduce because there is not enough food for so many. When the environment is unstable, for example in marshes that dry up during the summer and fills again in winter, it uses sexual combination to get a wide range of new possibilities and always survive.

That is to say, they provide information not only about the age of the rocks but about the environment
That would be another aspect, the age of the rocks. Mainly because there are some groups with a really fast evolution rate, and so many species are created in a brief period of geological time. At that point you can, by identifying each species, know in which layer and level you are.

Does micropalaeontology have any other practical applications?
Well, there is the one I talked about in the conference, dating in oil samplings, because drilling heads destroy all the macrofossils. Only sand comes out, and with it come microfossils. It was interesting to know the age of oil layers, which usually coincides with eras of bad ocean circulation. Anoxic environments are formed at the bottom of these layers. You need to drill to get there and, of course, each metre of survey costs millions in infrastructure… Therefore, you need formidable precision.

Up to which point did those economies contribute to develop the field?
An enormous lot. Labs were created all over the world and all of us worked there, in the oil industry. And, well, many journals emerged, some specialized, some group-specific or about micropalaeontology in general, and they carried out mainly taxonomy work, species identification in certain layers to serve as a guide and, as samples were extracted, know which era you were talking about. Then came high-resolution seismic, which shows the oil layer.

usera-3Lucía Sapiña  


«The micropalaeontology is back into fashion because all the deposits from the continental shelf that are easy to extract are almost depleted»

Do palaeontologists have connections today with underground gas extraction, known as fracking ?
Micropalaeontology has nothing to do there. But the «micro» is back into fashion because all the deposits from the continental shelf that are easy to extract are almost depleted, and they are looking for deposits in deeper waters, so they drill and the head of the exploration turns following the layer of that age. With these new drilling techniques, the exploration can go up or down… Micropalaeontologists are relevant there now, because they have to extract samples and conclude if they are still in the same layer.

With those organisms being so small, I guess the development of the speciality was also linked to the microscope
It was fundamental. And now, there is the electronic microscope. When you want to see something concerning microstructures, it is through an electronic microscope. The first electronic microscope in Valencia was in the Universitat Politècnica (Technical College) at the end of the 60s or beginning of the 70s. It was an immense contraption that made photos as small as this [draws a small square with his hands]. I still have some of them.

With fossils, can we study extinction as well evolution?
Yes. The fact is there are a lot of hypotheses about the possible causes for extinction, which is another issue palaeontology studies in collaboration with other sciences. Now virtually everyone agrees that in the Cretaceous-Tertiary event, 65 million years ago, a meteor impact caused the extinction of plant life, primary producers… Now we also think there was another great meteor impact that caused an even greater extinction than that one, which is the event between Palaeozoic and Mesozoic, at the end of the Permian era; that is, about 250 million years ago. As that one is so old, it is commonly believed that its impact has been almost completely erased. You always have to see which elements can be found in sediments that are only from meteors, and not common elements on Earth.

What leading figure left the biggest impression on you?
Emiliano Aguirre marked the kind of palaeontologist I am. And the person who taught me micropalaeontology, Guillermo Colom, is a very special person for me, too.

Lucía Sapiña. The Two Cultures Observatory. Mètode journal, University of Valencia.
© Mètode 2013

© Mètode 2013

Two Cultures Observatory, Mètode.

Journalism graduate by the Autonomous University of Barcelona and Masters Degree in History of Science and Science Communication by the University of Valencia. She is a member of the Two Cultures Observatory, a multidisciplinary research group of the University of Valencia that focuses on the links between journalism and science. Now her research is focused on the communication of cancer, both in press and social networks.