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Archive for February 2010

Evo in the news: Speciation in real time

The Central European blackcap (left) and Galapagos ground finch (right) are two bird species that have undergone speciation recently, while scientists observed.

The Central European blackcap (left) and Galapagos ground finch (right) are two bird species that have undergone speciation recently, while scientists observed.

Speciation isn't always slow — sometimes, we can see evidence of evolution over a very short period of time. This month's Evo in the news: Speciation in real time looks at two examples of speedy speciation. The Central European blackcap, a bird, could be on the verge of a speciation event — over the past 30 years, researchers have seen a split in the behavior and morphology of two groups of blackcaps. Speciation has occurred in another bird species over a similar time period: the Galapagos finches, long an example of speciation by natural selection, have done it again. Learn more about how speciation can happen right in front of scientists' eyes in Evo in the news: Speciation in real time, on the UCMP's Understanding Evolution website. This month's Evo in the News also features a video podcast, provided by the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent).

Click here to browse the Evo in the news archive!

Fish in the UCMP

Salmonid FossilIt is pretty unusual to see fish in the UCMP. It’s not that we don’t have any fish specimens — we have over a million fossilized fish fragments. It’s just that none of our museum scientists focus on fish, and so the museum’s fish parts tend to stay in the cabinets. But this past summer, Ralph Stearley of Calvin College visited the UCMP, and he did a little fishing.

Ralph pulled some spectacular specimens from the murky depths of the cabinets. The two specimens shown here are exceptional — nearly all the bones are in place, and one of the specimens even has imprints of scales! It is really rare for fish to fossilize like this — most of the time, fish break apart into individual bones and tiny scales.

These two specimens are salmonids. They are related to salmon, char, and trout — their closest living relative is probably the Dolly Varden. They lived 15-10 million years ago, in the ancient lakes that back then dotted Western Nevada. They were collected by UCMP curator Howard Hutchison in 1975, in an area called Stewart Valley. This site contains fossilized vertebrate, insect, fish, and plant material — it is rare to find so much taxonomic diversity in one place. Hutchison and his colleagues really got a sense of the entire fauna that once inhabited the area.

Ralph was excited to find these salmonid specimens in our collection — he and his collaborator, Gerald Smith of the University of Michigan, study the biogeographic history of salmonid fish. These specimens provide evidence that salmonids once lived in Western Nevada. For Ralph and Gerald, these fish are definitely keepers.

Salmonid Fossil Salmonid Head Scales Fish fossil

Predicting the future of San Francisco Bay: Learning from history

Short Course 2010

Speakers at the University of California Museum of Paleontology's 2010 Short Course, Predicting the future of San Francisco Bay: Learning from history. From left to right: Andrew Cohen, Will Travis, Jere Lipps, and Doris Sloan. Not present: Robin Grossinger.

Hundreds of thousands of people cross San Francisco Bay each day. But as commuters zip through the BART tunnel or drive over the bridges, they probably don't think about what the Bay looked like in the past — or what it will look like in the future. On Saturday, February 6, over 150 people attended the UCMP's annual Short Course, Predicting the future of San Francisco Bay: Learning from history. Throughout the course's five talks, they saw a very different view of San Francisco Bay.

A theme that emerged from the course was that San Francisco Bay is constantly changing. Doris Sloan, Adjunct Professor in Earth and Planetary Science at Berkeley and Curatorial Associate at the UCMP, spoke about the geologic processes that shape the Bay. For example, sea levels have fluctuated dramatically throughout the Bay's history. In the past, sea levels were low enough to make the Bay a dry river valley — and were high enough to make San Francisco an island. UCMP Faculty Curator Jere Lipps talked about the Bay's geology, too. He emphasized tectonic processes that are happening in the present day — and he brought his earthquake bucket. (If you live in a tectonically active area, please see below for more info on earthquake buckets!) The next speaker, Robin Grossinger of the San Francisco Estuary Institute, showed that geologic processes aren't the only things that shape the bay. He compared fascinating old maps to recent aerial photos to show that humans are responsible for numerous changes to the shoreline over the past 200 years. Andrew Cohen, Director of the Center for Research on Aquatic Bioinvasions (CRAB), talked about the ecological history of the bay. It is important to know which organisms (and how many of them) lived in the Bay, as we make plans to restore it. And Will Travis, Executive Director of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), talked about strategies for adapting to changes in the Bay that will occur in the future. Throughout the short course, it became clear that that San Francisco Bay has been changing since it first formed — and it will continue to change. At this point, we know a lot about the Bay — and we can use this knowledge as we plan for the future.

To learn more about the speakers, look at the agenda for the Short Course. The PowerPoint presentations will soon be available. And in a few weeks, videos of the presentations will be available on UC Berkeley's YouTube channel, iTunes U, and webcast.berkeley.edu. Check back for the links!

** In the event of an earthquake, Jere won't share the contents of his bucket with you – you need to put together your own earthquake preparedness kit! The website 72hours.org has a list of things you should include in your bucket. In addition to the items on the list, Jere suggests including a few other things that might just save your life: a wind-up radio/flashlight, a small one-burner propane stove, pillows, and gloves and kneepads for crawling around on broken glass and debris. If Haiti's recent earthquake is any indication, it could be several days before emergency services are able to reach everyone; Jere recommends including a supply of food and water to last at least 7 days.

How many mammoths?

Jake Enk cuts off a piece of a mammoth toothA few weeks ago, the UCMP welcomed visitor Jake Enk, a graduate student from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Jake visited the UCMP to saw off chunks of fossil mammoth teeth. Yes, you read that right. He took a small saw, sterilized the blade with bleach, and sliced off a small piece of tooth. Even after tens of thousands of years, mammoth teeth still contain DNA. Jake will put a little piece of the tooth in a test tube, and use a series of chemicals to purify the mammoth DNA. He does this work at the McMaster Ancient DNA Centre. The DNA from the mammoths' teeth can tell us about mammoth population structure.

Here at the UCMP, Jake took samples from 35-40 mammoth teeth in our collections — including one of Lupé's teeth! The UCMP is just one stop on his museum tour — Jake visited the Illinois State Museum, the University of Nebraska State Museum, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. Over the course of his trip, Jake collected samples from a total of about 175 animals. The mammoth teeth were collected all over the country — from Florida to Washington, and many localities in between. And, the animals lived at different times, over a period of about 200,000 years. By looking at the genetic diversity of the mammoths, through space and time, Jake will learn about variation in the size of the mammoth breeding population. This information can then be used to help answer ecological questions about mammoths.

Jake Enk's visit to the UCMP was funded in part by the Welles Fund. To learn how you can support research at the UCMP, click here.

Cutting off a piece of mammoth tooth Examining mammoth tooth sample