University of California Museum of Paleontology UCMP in the field See the world (and its fossils) with UCMP's field notes.
About UCMP People Blog Online Exhibits Public programs Education Collections Research

Archive for September 2010

In "Dr. K's" footsteps: A glimpse of Turkey in the UCMP paleobotany collections

Acorn cups of oak (Quercus), 20 Ma, Güvem, Turkey

Why would a Swedish paleobotanist go to the UCMP during a cold summer to study a collection of early Miocene plant fossils from Turkey instead of going to Turkey to enjoy a warm summer and great fieldwork? The reason - UCMP is home to a collection of fossil plants made over 40 years ago by Turkey native Dr. Baki Kasapligil (1918-1992).

Born in Çankaca, Turkey, Baki was raised in Istanbul – his father was Turkish and his mother from the country of Georgia. As a young man he attended UC Berkeley receiving his PhD in Botany in just three years (class of 1950) and then went on to teach at Mills College in Oakland, CA, where he was affectionately known as "Dr. K," and retired professor Emeritus. Baki travelled several times to Turkey in the late 1960s to collect plant fossils. His goal was to make a diverse collection with as many different species as possible. Throughout his career he kept close ties with Berkeley, encouraged by paleobotanists Ralph W. Chaney and Wayne L. Fry to study the Turkish fossils, especially given his strength in structural and systematic botany. With their help, he received NSF funding in 1976 to study the flora. He published a preliminary report in 1977 entitled "A Late-Tertiary conifer-hardwood forest from the vicinity of Güvem village, near Kızılcahamam, Ankara," but it seems as the years passed (no doubt juggling a full teaching load, administrative duties, and other botanical interests), Baki had less time to work on his Turkey collection. At 73, he unfortunately died before completing his monograph.

Today, collecting plant fossils in the Güvem area is more restrictive than was the case so many years ago when Baki made his collections. This is partially because the Güvem area is now famous for a wonderful petrified forest and has become Turkey's first-ever geopark, a nice parallel to the State or National Parks in the U.S. In addition to the geopark, Turkey has numerous excellent Tertiary plant localities, but the macrofossils from these sites are not well studied.

This spring I spent a great time in western Turkey collecting thousands of plant fossils from various lignite mines with colleagues and my PhD student, Tuncay Güner, from Istanbul. These localities have been dated as early to middle Miocene using pollen and spores, but their precise age is still debated. However, we have found a well-dated locality close to Ankara, in the Güvem area. This reference site contains plant fossil strata interbedded with volcanic sediments that have been radiometrically dated at about 20 Ma. These fossil beds are equivalent to those that Baki collected, so we know now his flora is much older than was previously thought.

So how did I get to know about this collection? By chance, I e-mailed Diane Erwin to send me some high resolution images of cleared leaves to compare to fossils I had collected in Turkey this spring. When she learned that I was working on Miocene floras in Turkey, she told me about Baki's collection. The decision was made quickly – I had to see the collection. And it paid off.

Besides enjoying the great hospitality of the people working at the UCMP, Baki Kasaplıgil's collection is indeed a key fossil plant assemblage for the early Miocene of the Eastern Mediterranean. It is extraordinarily rich in plant taxa and very distinct in composition from other southern European localities of the same age. Not only will it give us new insights into the Neogene vegetation and climate history of western Eurasia, but it will also help us better understand the phytogeographic links between Eurasia and North America. During the two weeks I stayed in Berkeley, I took about 5000 pictures of plant fossils and I, too, hope to compile a monograph of the Güvem flora in the nearest future.

Thomas Denk is Senior Curator in the Department of Palaeobotany at the Swedish Museum of Natural History.

In collaboration with Diane M. Erwin, UCMP Paleobotany

Using foraminifera as environmental indicators after an oil spill

The shells of abundant, tiny, marine organisms known as foraminifera deform when exposed to environmental pollutants. When foraminifera die they leave behind these shells as a record of the conditions through which they lived.  A team of researchers, including professor emeritus/UCMP curator Jere Lipps, reported on the usefulness of forams as environmental indicators after studying the impact of the 1978 Amoco Cadiz oil spill on the Brittany Coast. This work was presented on September 7 by Lipps' colleague, Marie-Thérèse Vénec-Peyré at the international Forams 2010 symposium in Bonn, Germany.

Developing a better understanding of forams as indicators of pollution gives scientists a powerful tool to measure the impact of future enviornmental disasters. Read more in this UC Berkeley News press release.

Museum nomads

For many paleobiologists summer is that part of the year during which data is gathered in its purest form: fossils. Such summers may take you in diametrically opposite directions, though. Some bring broadly boasted outdoor adventures of fieldwork. Others, however, take you deeper and deeper into the collection labyrinths in the dark bowls of natural history museums around the globe. Despite what others may let you believe - and don’t tell anyone we told you - fieldwork is often boring, tedious work, the outcome of which - if any - is generally unknown. Sometimes long after you have made it back to the lab - as is the case for most palynological expeditions - you still have no clue if the trip was successful or not.

Digging deep in museum collections, on the other hand, can be surprisingly exciting. It is like treasure hunting with the guarantee of success. Now when you tour the big museums in the world, you’re bound to run into fellow hunters. Wherever you may go, you always run in to other members of our tiny community. They are like snowbirds that tour the same limited number of Arizonian RV parks in winter. This year we realized: we’ve joined this small herd of museum nomads. Our trip this summer to the Museum für Naturkunde in former East Berlin was no exception. On the first day of our visit Harvard’s Andy Knoll gave a talk, and we saw Scotsman and paleontologist Allistair McG striding the hallways, a sight we had seen before during our stay at the Smithsonian’s NMNH.

The species that brought us to Berlin is Pleuromeia sternbergii - a 250 million year old quillwort. P. sternbergii is one of the few plant species that actually thrived during the aftermath of the end-Permian crisis, the largest mass extinction ever recorded. From the moment we heard of the plant, we were intrigued by the incredible success of this paleobotanical oddball. Word has it that the first Pleuromeiawas discovered in the 1830s when - during a repair - a sandstone block fell from the Cathedral of Magdeburg and broke into pieces on the pavement (Mägdefrau, 1968). The accident revealed a piece of fossil Pleuromeia stem; nine years later first described by count Georg zu Münster as a Sigillaria species. Fortunately for us, the quarry that produced the stones that built the cathedral was known to be close to the nearby town of Bernburg. Many more important specimens have been found in the same quarry since, and that’s exactly what we were after in Berlin.

Typical Pleuromeia fossils look like a small baseball bat, often with a spirally arranged pattern of dimples on it. These are almost always sandstone casts (infillings) of decayed Pleuromeia stems. Since the decay of these lycopsid stems occurs in distinct phases - starting from the inside-outward, depending on the resilience of concentric tissue layers – virtually all remains are casts of inner stem tissues layers. Now among the many published papers on Pleuromeia sternbergii - the first ones starting in the late 1800s - there was one of by Mägdefrau (1931) that figured a rare feature: the detailed leaf scars on the outside of a Pleuromeia stem. This is crucial information for a new reconstruction we plan to make of P. sternbergii. However, for most of the 20th century this important specimen was considered lost, until someone recently rediscovered it in Berlin. So we had to see it.

While walking through the hallways of the 121 year old museum building, we stared in the face of a Brachiosaurus brancai, the largest mounted dinosaur skeleton (really, it's in the Guinness book of records), walked past a wooden closet decorated with Paleozoic sea lilies and fossil horsetails in wood carvings, and saw many nice old paleo reconstructions. A stone staircase led the way to the attic of the museum; that’s where the Mesozoic paleobotany collections are housed. The collections space is not air conditioned, and it was around 100 degrees Fahrenheit outside. Up on the attic it was quite a bit warmer, so we had to take care not to spill little streams of sweat on the fossils. Luckily, a small table fan was already performing its duty. We sat down and started browsing though three cabinets with Buntsandstein collections.

Mesozoic plant curator Barbara Mohr very modestly apologized that the collection was not very extensive, but we couldn’t believe our eyes. They turned out to have a huge number of specimens, most of which were collected in the 19th century. Many of the specimens showed important features that have never been published on. Beside the unique specimen with detailed features of the outside of the stem, we found three more specimens. There was a lot of reproductive material in the collection as well - terminal cones, isolated sporophyls and dime to quarter-sized sporangia. Moreover, a short stack of drawers contained hundreds leaf fragments. Now leaves have hardly been figured in Pleuromeia publications, so that was something we knew very little about. For two days, we felt like two little kids in a candy store, photographing as much as possible.

Ceci n’est pas une Pleuromeia
Overseeing this enormous collection, we realized how far off we were with our earlier whole-plant reconstruction of Pleuromeia (see fig.). Now we need to get started on a new one a.s.a.p. Of course, each illustrated reconstruction of an extinct organism or landscape is a hypothesis, and should be treated as such. However, such graphic hypotheses seem almost immune to the natural selection of other memes such as more conceptual, verbal hypotheses. That is because most ‘users’ are not so much interested in the intellectual merit of the hypothesis, but are looking for a pretty picture of an old dead thing. Therefore, falsified but pretty reconstructions have a very slow decay rate, or may even grow in importance. Thus, falsifiability - the one thing that sets scientific claims apart from most non-scientific ones - is continuously threatened by esthetics... The fact that in most reconstructions it is impossible to see the degree of accuracy of the various depicted components adds to the problem. In an ideal world all reconstructions come with an integrated disclaimer or are all just really ugly. Until then, we’d better make sure that each new reconstruction looks better than the predecessor it replaces.

Karl Mägdefrau 1934. Zur Morphologie und phylogenetischen Bedeutung der fossilen Pflanzengattung Pleuromeia. Beih. Bot. Centralbl. 48: 119-140.

Karl Mägdefrau 1968. Paläobiologie der Pflanzen. 4th edition, Fischer, Stuttgart, 549 pp.

Hiring for a faculty position in invertebrate paleobiology

The Department of Integrative Biology at the University of California, Berkeley, is soliciting applications for a tenure track position (Assistant Professor) in Paleobiology. The successful candidate will also serve as a curator in the University of California Museum of Paleontology.

If you're interested, please read the complete job listing.