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Fossil neighbors

Jessie drivingAbout once a month, I drive from Berkeley to Walnut Creek to pick up specimens for my thesis (dead birds for a study of the evolution of development in Aves), which necessitates a pass through the Caldecott Tunnel. Each time, I heave a sigh and try to shore up my patience as traffic before the tunnels slows to a stop. However, this bane has recently metamorphosed into an object of great interest, for it has come to my attention that the construction here is also uncovering of one of Earth’s most alluring treasures: fossils!

The construction workers are burrowing through rocks that are 9 to 16 million years old. Here, the hills have yielded thousands of fossils of all types of organisms, from plants, to vertebrates and invertebrates, to microfossils (very tiny plants and animals). They, in turn, provide clues to the past flora, fauna, and paleoenvironment of the Bay Area. Who knew that such a wealth of fossils could be found so nearby?

This semester, I am fortunate enough to be a Graduate Student Researcher (GSR) in the UC Museum of Paleontology (UCMP), a position funded by the California State Department of Transportation (known locally as Caltrans) as a component of a new partnership with the UCMP. The plan, in short, is for Caltrans to deposit the fossils recovered from the 4th bore Caldecott Tunnel construction project in UCMP, and for UCMP to clean, catalogue, and curate them. For further details on the UCMP/Caltrans project, please see Mark Goodwin’s article. As the GSR for this project, it will be my job to prepare the fossils by cleaning the dirt off, gluing together what is broken, and properly curating them in the museum.

Scanning the Prep Lab

Scanning the Prep Lab from left to right. Click on the image to see an enlargement.

When I was a little girl with aspirations to become a scientist and study fossils, I was a volunteer paleontologist at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in southeastern California. It was here that I first discovered the appeal of fossil preparation, and the wonderful feeling of reward that comes after many hours of meticulous work. Thus, I am quite excited about the work that I will do over the next few months!


I’ve just completed a scrub-down and organization of the UCMP fossil preparation lab in anticipation of this work, and the boxes of fossils will be arriving soon! As I proceed, I will report on the exciting finds that come to light as each box is opened, and the tale these fossils recount about the paleontology and geology of the East Bay hills.