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Archive for December 2012

An evening with Neil Shubin

UCMP has partnered with the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco's Arts & Ideas series to present a lecture by Neil Shubin on Wednesday, January 16.

Paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Neil Shubin is famed for discovering the fossilized Tiktaalik roseae, the missing link between ancient sea creatures and land dwellers. His bestselling book, Your Inner Fish, shows parallels between human anatomy and the structures of the fish that first wriggled landward 375 million years ago. In his new book, The Universe Within, he goes one step further, explaining how the universe’s 14-billion-year history is reflected in our bodies, right down to our molecules. Neil Shubin is a professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy at the University of Chicago and a Fellow of the California Academy of Sciences. Academy Fellows are a distinguished group of eminent scientists recognized for notable contributions to one or more of the natural sciences.

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A salute to the Engdahl family

The Engdahl family

From left, Robert, Jane, Duane, and Cathy (Bras) Engdahl. Photo courtesy of Bill Clemens.

The Morris Skinner Award is the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology’s way of honoring those who have added to our knowledge through their contributions to collection of scientifically significant fossils. At its annual meeting in Raleigh, North Carolina, the society honored the Engdahl family of Garfield County, Montana, for their long-term, multi-generational support of paleontological research and education. Students, staff, and faculty associated with UCMP have benefited greatly from the Engdahls’ help and hospitality.

In the late 1960s, the late Harley Garbani went to the valley of Hell Creek in northeastern Montana with the goal of collecting skeletons of dinosaurs for exhibit at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. He was particularly successful in his discoveries on the Engdahl Ranch. In addition to two skeletons of Tyrannosaurus rex he discovered the remains of other non-avian dinosaurs, which were collected with the help of Lester Engdahl and his sons, Robert and Larry.

On the Engdahl Ranch, Harley also discovered concentrations of fossils of mammals, lizards, turtles, and other relatively small vertebrates that lived with the dinosaurs. In 1972, Harley, who became a field research associate of UCMP, introduced Bill Clemens and students from our museum to the Engdahls and these rich concentrations of small fossils. This was the beginning of a continuing project to study the evolution of the fauna and flora that lived with the last of the dinosaurs and the survivors of the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous. UCMP’s collections now contain extensive samples of fossil plants and animals from this interval of earth history. These continue to be the bases for a wide variety of research projects.

Through the years until his death in 1995 Lester Engdahl supported UCMP field parties. For example, he helped us refurbish a homesteader’s cabin and made it available to our field crews. In the summers the cabin provided a kitchen and shelter from the more than occasional thunderstorms. The rest of the year it served as a secure storage place for field supplies. Lester’s son, Robert Engdahl, his wife Jane, and their children, Duane and Cathy, were particularly supportive and helpful. Jane and her children “caught the bug” and became skilled in prospecting for vertebrate fossils. Many summer field seasons opened with expeditions to collect fossils or evaluate sites that they had discovered.

Field work in Garfield County continues to be more than just collecting old bones, shells, and leaves. Since 1972 over fifty undergraduate and graduate students from Berkeley and other universities have come to Garfield County in the summer to learn collecting and research techniques. Nine of these students from UCMP completed research for their Ph.D. degrees making use of information on the geology and fossils collected in the area. This involvement continues as the Engdahls support the work of field parties from the University of Washington and the Burke Museum led by UCMP alumnus Greg Wilson.

Jane Engdahl and Cathy Engdahl Bras attended the meeting in Raleigh and received the Skinner Award. We add our thanks for all they and their family have contributed to the success of UCMP’s programs of research and education.

Werning in Biology Letters with oldest dinosaur

©Natural History Museum, London/Mark Witton

Nyasasaurus parringtoni is the new name for a very old fossil — a small dinosaur that lived 10 million years before any other known species. UCMP's Sarah Werning co-authored the Biology Letters paper describing the animal and did bone analysis on the specimen.

The Nyasasaurus fossil that Sarah and her co-authors studied was collected in Tanzania in the 1930s but was not described and documented for 80 years. The find pushes the origin of dinosaurs back to the middle of the Triassic period.

 

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Dispatches from Clear Lake, part 2

 

UCMP's Cindy Looy is leading a project to collect 130,000 years worth of sediment data from Clear Lake in order to better understand how life has adapted to climate change. Along the way, members of her team reported back to us with all the progress and drama from the field.  Read part 1 here.

From UCB undergrad research assistant Robert Stevenson:

Robert documenting a core section.

Fri 4/27-Sat 4/28 Night Shift
First night shift was tough. Even with the nap I took to prep for the difference in sleeping schedule, staying awake was still pretty hard. We took the first core around ~2300 and new cores came up slower and slower as the night progressed and the deeper we went. Other than the desire to sleep, the worst experience of the night was the bitterly cold winds. Thankfully, I brought my phone out so I could listen to podcasts and audiobooks or browse the internet when I got really bored. When shift change finally happened at 0700, I fell asleep on the boat ride back. After unloading the cores from the boat and getting out of my coveralls and boots, I ate what I could and crashed within minutes of lying down in bed.

Sat 4/28-Sun 4/29 Night Shift
The second night out went much smoother. Temperatures were up and winds and waves were down. The weather change and bright lights on the barge sparked a torrent of midges to engulf the barge. Other than trying not to swallow the occasional bug, most of my time is spent listening to podcasts and audiobooks as I did the night before. Cores came up as slowly as the night before (1-1.5 hrs) but the waiting and sleep deprivation haven't been as bad. Shift change and everything else happened the same as the day before. However, after waking up from my sleep, Katherine and I decided to go fishing for bass with the kayak. The only thing we caught were the many plants in the shallow areas we ventured...

Mon 4/30
Media day. Katherine and I got up at 0500 to prep the breakfast for the scientists, drillers, and journalists.  No sooner had most of the day crew finished their breakfast, the first journalists arrived sooner than Cindy hoped. She had been practicing her answers at the table while still in her pajamas. About an hour after the day shift left, the other journalists began to trickle in. While being on the news seemed like fun, my body told me sleep was far more interesting and I fell back asleep until about 1400.

Thu 5/3-Fri 5/4 Night Shift
Cores were coming up relatively quickly for most of the night; every ~30min in comparison to the 1+hr waits from my first first two night shifts. I worked on removing material from the core catcher, a small nozzle shaped piece at the front of the tool with teeth that love to grab fingers. Things went relatively smoothly until what seemed like a relatively calm night after a day of rain changed for the worse around 0100. A light drizzle of rain and increased wind speeds meant the barge began to roll and yaw quite profusely. By ~0330, drilling had to be stopped due to the amount of wind and the possibility of damaging the drilling equipment. For the rest of the night, we all huddled up in the 10' x 6' science shack to wait out the poor weather until the day shift relieved us at 0700.

Fri 5/4-Sat 5/5 Night Shift
Wind conditions were as bad as the night before. For the first several hours, everyone stayed in the science shack and watched movies until the winds and waves finally subsided around 2000. Drilling started up again around 2030 and we got back to the dirty work of handling the cores. We got about another 15m before we hit the gravel layer again. Around 0300 and one failed attempt to drill through the gravel layer, it was decided that the drilling was done and the drill string should be brought up before the forecasted bad weather struck us again. While the drillers worked, Katherine and I tried to get what little sleep we could in the science shack. At 0700, the day shift drillers arrived and we headed out from our last day on the barge. About ⅔rd the way back from the barge, the engine on the fire boat gave out on us and we drifted aimlessly. Jokes and curses were abounded and we pulled out the two paddles on the boat as well as made a couple more paddles from core liners and duct tape. By the time we had almost agreed on who to eat first, a boat finally reached us and towed us back to the rental house. A 2 hour ordeal but not the longest time I have waited for a tow by AAA.

From grad student Tripti Bhattacharya:

Friday, May 4th
Today was a reminder that, despite the best laid plans, successful fieldwork often hinges on forces beyond any PI’s control. In short, it requires the weather to cooperate. The day started out windy, with choppy waves, which made it too risky to operate the coring system. We spent the day hoping for conditions to improve, which left a lot of time for staring off into the distance, sleeping, and being frustrated. Despite the lack of core recovery, the day did offer a chance to observe the aquatic birds of Clear Lake, which seemed drawn by the film of dead midges perpetually on the water’s surface around the barge. Among others, we saw a pair of mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos), as well as several western grebes (Aechmophorus occidentalis) and eared grebes (Podiceps nigricollis). The day ended with a relatively wild boat ride home, and the hope that conditions would improve during the night shift.

From project lead Cindy Looy:

On Tuesday May 1 we started drilling the second core. It went extremely well the first shifts at the new hole, but unfortunately the weather started to change on Thursday. We had to stop coring 2:30 pm that night because of the wave action. The weather predictions for the weekend were even more wind, with a short window during the night of Friday-Saturday. During that interval the night shift managed to get to the gravel layer 140 meters deep. Because we knew our towboat could not operate under the high wind speeds that were predicted, and we had to get off the lake by the end of Sunday, we decided to play it safe and quit operations the end of that night. The barge was towed back to Lakeport Saturday morning.

This may not sound like a happy ending, but we had a great time at Clear Lake and ended up with two perfect 140 meters of clays plus 12 meter of gravel-rich layers (that might be volcanic). The cores have been boxed up and on their way to their megafridge at LacCore in Minnesota...