Japanese Star Sand
"The tiniest of stars beneath our feet can reveal the greatest mysteries of deep time." ~ from the Second Edition of the Mini Museum
Foraminifera are single-celled creatures which produce a diverse range of beautiful and tiny protective shells. These shells appear in the fossil record as far back as 550 million-years, and in some locations, entire beaches are made up of these so-called "foram sands."
Above: Macro image of Foraminifera "Star sand" Hatoma Island - Japan (Source: psammophile Microphotographie personnelle)
The islands of Okinawa, Japan are home to several foram sand beaches. A folktale from Taketomi-Jima describes the star-shaped shells as the children of the Polar Star and the Southern Cross, devoured and spat out again by a giant serpent which served the Seven Dragon God of the Sea.
The Japanese Star Sand specimen comes from a private collection obtained many years ago from Hoshizuna-no-Hama ("Star Sand Beach") on the island of Iriomote in Okinawa Prefecture, Japan. This specimen was featured in the Second Edition of the Mini Museum and we are happy to offer it once again as a single specimen.
Above: Hoshizuna-no-hama ( Star Sand Beach ) in Iriomote Island, Taketomi Town, Okinawa Prefecture, Japan. 日本語: 星砂の浜。所在地は沖縄県竹富町の西表島。(Source: http://bit.ly/1opq5ZN)
Please Note: Foram sand beaches contain many billions of foraminifera remains along with other debris one is likely to find on many beaches. To prepare this specimen, we had to begin by separating forams from actual sand and tiny bits of debris, and because the sand and the shells are essentially the same size, this had to be done by hand with tweezers. It is possible that some common beach debris may be included in this specimen but we've done our best separate the forams from the sand and other bits one is likely to find on a beach.
To make it easy for you to handle the specimen (and to include more forams), we've opted to showcase this carefully prepared specimen in a small glass vial complete with a cork stopper. The vial is enclosed in an acrylic specimen jar and displayed in a classic, glass-topped riker display box measuring 4x3x1 inches. A small information card is also included.
Human beings have studied foraminifera since at least the 5th century BC when Herodotus noted their presence in the limestone of Egyptian pyramids. The French naturalist Alcide d'Orbigny (1802-1857), considered the father of modern micropaleontology, personally classified thousands of species in both France and the Americas.
Between the years 1826 and 1833, d'Orbigny toured South America for the Paris Museum of Natural History. During his trip, d'Orbigny gathered over 10,000 different specimens across a very broad spectrum.
Above: Foraminifera illustrated by Alcide d'Orbigny from Les Planches Inédites de Foraminiféres. Note the tiny, actual-size drawings next to their enhanced versions.
When Charles Darwin followed several years later, he found traces of d'Orbigny at every turn. Darwin worried that d'Orbigny might have gathered all of the best specimens, and while the specimens these men returned with might have overlapped in places each made discoveries that went far beyond the collection of objects.
In Darwin's case, we all know that his great discovery was the Origin of Species or the Theory of Evolution. For d'Orbigny, the journey seemed to solidify his thoughts about the immense power and beauty in the smallest of creatures:
Everything in nature which appears insignificant by mere sight not only remains unknown to the mass of the population, but still escapes whole centuries of observation by the precious few who seek to uncover the beauties of creation. Imagine the myriad of beings we are yet to know and how many years will pass before we have even gained a small idea of scale of all Zoology.
The sheer volume of the largest animals makes us wonder at the marvel of Nature. We exclaim their exquisite perfection. Yet, we are surprised that the world is no less lively as we go down to examine unnoticed beings of extreme smallness.
These tiny creatures compensate for their lack of size through vast numbers, a multiplicity which allows them to play a leading role in the whole of Nature itself without our knowledge. These tiny creatures, some with bodies no larger than a sixth of a millimeter, are spread across the vastness of the surface of the sea. Their remains have the power to create coastlines and alter the course of navigation through bays and straits. We can see this power across time represented throughout every geological layer.
- Alcide d'Orbigny from Foraminiferes de l'ile de Cuba, published in 1839.
Today, scientists often use foraminifera as reference points in the study of climate change over long periods of time. Foraminifera often live symbiotically with microalgae, and together they play an important role in coral reef ecosystems via production of carbonate sands and by buffering daily pH changes. Combined with pollen samples from deep-sea cores and isotopic analysis, the variety of foraminifera species, their physical size and even sexual dimorphism, are valuable in establishing and confirming the existence of climatic zones in ancient seas.