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Archive for March 2012

Big awards for UCMP grad students

Two graduate students in Tony Barnosky's lab, Emily Lindsey and Kaitlin Maguire, recently received the good news that they were the recipients of prestigious awards.

Emily and field crew

Emily Lindsey (second from left) with part of her field team in Ecuador. Photo by Tony Barnosky.

Emily had this to say about her Fulbright grant:

Kaitlin takes a break

Kaitlin Maguire takes a break during field work in Oregon. Photo courtesy of Kaitlin Maguire.

"I received a Fulbright award to travel to Uruguay from March to December, 2013 (the academic year for the Southern Hemisphere). I will be working with colleagues at the National Museum of Natural History in Montevideo, where we will be putting together a database of Pleistocene fossil mammals for the South American continent — where the localities are, what taxa are found there, etc. This dovetails nicely with an NSF grant that Tony Barnosky (and I and several South and North American colleagues) received in December to radiocarbon-date several hundred bones of South American Pleistocene mammals to incorporate into such a database."

Kaitlin on receiving a Louderback Fund award:

"I am surprised and honored to receive the Louderback Fellowship. I plan to use the award to study diet change in Miocene horses of Oregon using stable isotope analyses. This award recognizes graduate students for their research and service to the UCMP. George D. Louderback was a geology professor and Dean of the College of Letters and Science at UC Berkeley in the early 1900s and I am happy to join the long list of esteemed UCMP graduate students and alumni who have previously received the fellowship."

Our congratulations to both!

Field work during a mass extinction

Imagine that a “time machine” allowed you to go back in time — back exactly 64,999,995 years ago, just five years before the crash of the meteor that marked the end of the Age of the Dinosaurs. You have just enough time to do your field work, analyze your data, and write your Ph.D. dissertation. Your field work starts in the closest emerged land to the Chicxulub impact site. In no time at all you begin discovering new species of dinosaurs that are unknown from the fossil record, and you diligently test dozens of hypotheses about the behavior and physiology of these Mesozoic giants.

Mauna Kea vegetationFor three years you have that chance to explore a completely different world to the one where you grew up. Australia is still connected to a temperate Antarctica and India is on its way to cross the equatorial line. Continental seas cover extensive regions of North America, Europe, Asia and in South America, east of the rising Andes.

During your last year of field work, a series of small meteorites begin to impact the Earth. These events become more and more frequent and some of them have local effects similar to the volcanic explosion of the island of Krakatau in 1883. Your advisor and dissertation committee recommend that you come back, but you refuse to do so. You still want to do field work for your last chapter concerning the ecology of Titanosaurus in South America. It is literally the last chance to study these sauropods before they become extinct. However, communications with your family and friends make you change your mind. After carefully packing up all your samples, including Ornithuromorpha feathers, Nymphaeaceae flowers and pollinator insects, you come back to the present. The Cretaceous world is not a safe place anymore ….

Our reality today is in some ways not too far from this fictional story. Based in Laupāhoehoe on the Big Island of Hawai’i this past January, I took part in field work on the slopes of Mauna Kea and witnessed how the environment is changing in a precipitous way. I had the chance to do an altitudinal transect with climate change researchers from the University of Hawai’i, Mānoa. Starting at 1,116 meters we were surrounded by an amazingly beautiful native forest. Huge o’hia and koa trees dominated the canopy, while the understory was full of a variety of endemic plants, including the hapu’u fern, ‘ōlapa tree, ‘ōhelo berries and more than 15 other endemic species. Flying and singing amongst the vegetation, different species of native birds, (i’iwi, apapane, ‘oma’o, ‘amakihi) accompanied us. The bark and leaves of the trees hosted an abundant community of terrestrial invertebrates. Dozens of species of Drosophila, giant Leptogryllus crickets, colorful Tetragnatha spiders and, of course, the curious Hawaiian happy face spider, were part of this unique world.

However, as we descended, the increase of invasive species, like strawberry guava, clidemia and Kāhili ginger, became obvious. At 934 meters, most of the strawberry guavas were juvenile — they were the advancing front of an invasion. By 800 meters, the strawberry guava trees were older and the diversity of endemic plants had declined dramatically. Toward the end of the transect, we were in a pure strawberry guava forest. Most of the native plants were gone and many of the animals appeared to be absent as well. It became obvious to me that I was witnessing the potential future for the higher elevation areas.

Today, the disappearance of "critically endangered," "endangered" and "vulnerable" species could lead us further down a path toward what might be the planet's sixth mass extinction. Indeed, it is likely that many more organisms will go extinct in our lifetime. The clock is ticking for many species worldwide and we have a limited time to discover and document our existing biological diversity. Unlike the K/T extinction, we can use our knowledge of contemporary species distribution and abundance to prevent these extinctions. However, for this to occur, human society must undergo fundamental yet attainable changes. If we fail to learn the lessons from the past, there might not be a future from which to escape once the Earth ceases to be a safe place ….

Acknowledgement: I want to thank Scott Laursen for suggestions for the text and for letting me join the research team to visit Laupāhoehoe.

Judy Scotchmoor receives the Friend of Darwin award

The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) has awarded Judy Scotchmoor a Friend of Darwin award for her tireless commitment to evolution education. NCSE explains that the Friend of Darwin award "is presented annually to a select few whose efforts to support NCSE and advance its goal of defending the teaching of evolution in the public schools have been truly outstanding."

Read more about Judy, the award, and other Friends of Darwin.

Cataloging the archives: Unearthing a type

This semester, one of the foci of the CLIR/UCMP Archive Project has been cataloging what are called “supplemental locality files.” These files contain materials (other than field notes) that are relevant to UCMP collections, such as polaroid pictures of fossil sites, letters of correspondence involving UCMP scientists, and environmental impact reports for land development proposed in areas with known fossil sites. As such, they are unique records of how collections came to be, and how collections have since been used for research, education, and protection of paleontological resources on public lands.

My work on the project is (1) to improve the preservation of these materials by rehousing them in archival-quality containers and (2) to make entries in the UCMP collections database to link the archive and collections records. The latter makes it possible for anyone interested in, say, the holotype of Cretaceous plesiosaur Hydrotherosaurus alexandrae to look up what archival materials exist in the museum that are related to the specimen (by following the “Link to Archives” in the specimen record or administrative locality record; alternatively, the search function of the Archon database can be used).

In this example, the supplemental locality file includes photographs (below) and corresponding negatives of the excavation site taken in 1937, photographs of prepared specimens, William Gordon Huff’s reconstruction of the animal, and type-written captions for the photographs that were perhaps prepared for an exhibit. When combined with field notes, pictures of excavation sites like these often carry important information on how skeletal remains were buried, which in turn can provide insights into the habits and habitats of long-extinct animals (learn more about this topic). Beyond their scientific values, these pictures preserve vivid images of field work in the early 20th Century, enticing those of us who study paleontology today to ponder on the history of the discipline and personal development of yesterday’s workers whom we hold in high esteem (read about Samuel P. Welles).

You can see a replica of the Hydrotherosaurus skeleton at the City College of San Francisco.

Stay tuned for more exciting “digs” from the Archive Project!

[Larger versions of the photos below can be seen on CalPhotos.]

Left: A scraper pulled by a mule was used to remove fragments of shale from the surface and expose fossil-bearing layers of rock. Center: The holotype of Hydrotherosaurus alexandrae was recovered in the Panoche Hills of Fresno County, California, in 1937 by a joint party from Fresno State College (now CSU Fresno) and UC Berkeley. Right: Samuel P. Welles (left) and Lloyd Conley extracted a block containing the neck of the plesiosaur. Welles, then a graduate student, later described and named the plesiosaur after UCMP benefactor, Annie Alexander.

Center: A caption associated with this photo reads ‘We put the heavy blocks on a sled to get them out of the deep canyon ...’ Left: ‘... then, with a tractor up on top and a long cable going through a pulley which was anchored to a large sandstone dike, we gradually worked the sled down the main canyon.’ Right: Albert Branch (left) and Welles are surrounded by plaster jackets containing fossils.

Left: The UCMP holotype skeleton of Hydrotherosaurus alexandrae, specimen number 33912. The 30-foot skeleton was prepared by two WPA workers over 18 months and was put on display at the Golden Gate Exposition in 1940. Right: William Gordon Huff's reconstruction of Hydrotherosaurus alexandrae.