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 the ‘Behind the scenes’ Category.

Cataloging the archives: Geology camp 100 years ago

Looking at UCMP's modern offices and collections space, one might not appreciate that the paleontology tradition at Berkeley stretches back more than one hundred years.  But now the CLIR/UCMP Archive Project is bringing this history to light. Some of the oldest supplemental locality files I have come across this semester contain class reports and geologic maps prepared by a Cal field geology class in the summer of 1911. Led by Bruce L. Clark, who eventually became the first director of the UCMP, the class camped on the south slope of Mount Diablo in and around what is today Mount Diablo State Park. The scientific goal of the one-month course was to reconstruct the tectonic history of the area through mapping of exposed rock units and collecting of marine invertebrate fossils that are indicative of geologic ages and past environments.

Here are some of the photographs from student Irving V. Augur's report along with the original typewritten captions:

Also in the archive are students' field notes and maps, such as the ones below by William S. W. Kew. In his notes, he recorded the orientation of rock layers (e.g., strike of N60°W and dip of 60°S for Locality 27) and scientific names of fossil invertebrates that had been collected at various locations on the mountain (e.g., Dosinia whitneyi is a clam).

[Fossils from Mount Diablo: top, a Cretaceous clam, specimen number 199004; middle, an internal mold of an Eocene heart urchin, Schizaster lecontei, specimen number 199000; bottom left, Miocene sand dollar, Astrodapsis sp., specimen number 199001; bottom right, a Miocene scallop, specimen number 199002.]

And yes, the fossil clam, sand dollars and scallop pictured above are the specimens collected by the students of the field course 100 years ago. Some of the fossils brought back are currently stored in the Campanile on the Berkeley campus, while others have found their home in the UCMP's research collections in the Valley Life Sciences Building.

After a month of surveying, the students examined these data to figure out the ages of rock layers as well as the arrangement of rocks beneath the surface of the mountain. Here is an exquisitely drawn diagram by Auger.

So what makes Mount Diablo geologically interesting? If you look closely at Kew's map with color-coded rock formations, you will notice that, as one climbs up the mountain, the underlying rock layer becomes progressively older from the Miocene (faint purple and yellow) to Eocene (red), Cretaceous, and Jurassic (green and orange)—which is a bit counterintuitive, isn't it? Furthermore, Auger's inferred cross-section through the mountain suggests that the strata are almost vertically oriented.

In his class report, I. V. Augur wrote:

"The general structure of Mt. Diablo region was for some time a point of disagreement, the reason being that while on the north side evidence of the strata dipping away from the mountain suggested an anticline, evidence on the opposite side did not bear out the assumption, since the general dip was in the same direction and the succession of beds reversed. Prof. J. C. Merriam, however, after a careful study of the structure and faunal relations, pronounced it an overturned anticline, which structure has been generally accepted by geologists who have examined the territory under discussion" (Augur 1911, p. 2).

After a century of additional research, the interpretation of the mountain's geology has changed. Experts today think that Mount Diablo is largely a product of a series of thrust faults (follow this link to see a simplified animation). Specifically, the Jurassic-Cretaceous rocks (which now form the upper portion of the mountain) have been uplifted along the fault zone in the last few million years, bending the more recent Eocene to Miocene rock layers on the southwest side of this zone (the lower portion of the mountain that was mapped by Kew and his classmates).

So the old class reports are uniquely valuable for giving us glimpses into the development of scientific ideas through the eyes of students. The detailed observations recorded in the class reports reveal that the field camp was really a group research project involving students.

An excerpt from I. V. Augur's report

A table of fossils colleted (from W. S. W. Kew's report)

An excerpt from Kew's report with comments (in blue) by the instructor (Clark?)
















As one flips through these reports, it is worth keeping in mind that, in 1911, the theory of continental drift was still being formulated by Alfred Wegener. More locally, this is back when John C. Merriam and colleagues from Berkeley had been tirelessly digging up asphalt-covered fossils from the tar pits of Rancho La Brea in Los Angeles, and an undergraduate student by the name of Charles L. Camp was busy catching reptiles and amphibians (such as this arboreal salamander) for the newly-founded Museum of Vertebrate Zoology.

After 1911, Clark continued to teach and conduct research in the Mount Diablo area for many more years. This not only contributed to greater understanding of regional geology but also led to a fortuitous discovery in 1927 of one of the most significant Miocene mammal localities in California, the Black Hawk Ranch Quarry. Also notably, some of the students from the field camp went on to become respected geologists—Kew, for instance, pursued his doctoral degree in the Department of Paleontology and produced important works on fossil echinoderms (sea urchins, sand dollars, and their relatives).

To learn more about the geology of Mount Diablo, check out Doris Sloan's Geology of the San Francisco Bay Region (University of California Press) and take a hike on the interpretive Trail Through Time on a sunny day. I end with a few images from my recent excursion to the mountain with my colleagues. Considering the extent of Clark's and his students' survey effort, we may have crossed their footsteps at some point as we climbed Eocene marine sandstones (below left), traversed meadows dotted with California Poppies (below center), and stood by outcrops of ancient radiolarian chert (below right).

Special thanks to Dave Strauss for photographing Kew's map, David K. Smith for information on the geologic history of Mount Diablo, and Renske Kirchholtes and Emily Lindsey for the trip to Mount Diablo State Park!


More stories from the CLIR/UCMP Archive Project

Cataloging the archives: Update I

Cataloging the archives: Unearthing a type

Photo shoots for UCMP science

This semester, the UCMP has been excited to host a visiting photographer, UC alum Dave Strauss.  A self-described "computer guy" for the last 42 years, he is also an avid naturalist, hiker, and mountain biker.  Dave finds inspiration at the UCMP through the opportunity to use his talents to communicate evolutionary and historical knowledge to the broader community.

A juvenile Triceratops specimen gets its moment in the spotlight.

Collaboration with Dave has provided many opportunities to contribute to science.  He has confronted technical challenges photographing unwieldy Triceratops fossil fragments with Assistant Director Mark Goodwin, to photographing tiny tadpoles just beginning to grow their skeletons with graduate student Theresa Grieco.  He is also assisting with the CLIR/UCMP archive project, documenting and digitizing historical records, particularly more unusual items like lantern slides (for examples of lantern slides depicting California geology, click here).

Dave's willingness to experiment with lighting, lenses, and artistry has paid off - he has helped at least 7 different researchers get great images for their work.  He finds he is learning more about photography as his paleontology collaborators push the boundaries of optics and camera technology with unusual requests, and he is able to quiz them about the most current research projects going on in the UCMP.

You can find some of Dave Strauss's work, including images from the UCMP collections, at his website.

Dave examines the fineness of detail captured in preparations of Xenopus tropicalis tadpole jaws.

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.

The Amber Files: Words from the University Explorer

Polished amber in the Museum of Amber in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. (Photo by Alejandro Linares Garcia (CC BY-SA 3.0))

"More than 300 years ago, Sir Francis Bacon spoke of amber as 'a more than royal tomb' for tiny insects. Twentieth century scientists may quite agree."

But how do insects end up as amber fossils?  What else is found in amber?  How are these amber fossils prepared for study?

The answers to these questions can be found in one of the hidden collections of UCMP's archives — the 1561st broadcast of "The University Explorer." This show was narrated by Hale Sparks, former head of broadcasting for the University of California, during which time he ran two educational radio shows — "Science Editor" and "The University Explorer."

Mosquito encased in Miocene-aged amber from the Dominican Republic. (Photo by Didier Desouens (CC BY-SA 3.0))

The October 6, 1957 broadcast of the program, entitled "Forever in Amber," featured Berkeley entomologist Paul D. Hurd, Jr. It follows the path of an ancient insect as it becomes entombed in amber, uncovered, prepared, and studied. The narration moves from the famous Baltic amber deposits to Berkeley's own amber research efforts in Chiapas, Mexico, and from the struggles of a small fungus gnat caught in sap to the thrill of a scientist's discovery.

"These insects, which were so remarkably preserved in the fossilized tree gums of the prehistoric forests, are now clearly visible to us in amber. They often appear to be virtually alive."

A complete transcript of "Forever in Amber" can be found online here or as a pdf.

Relicts of the Bug-men

What are bug-men and how did their existence benefit UCMP? Watch and listen to this slideshow about an obscure link recently discovered by UCMP micropaleontologist Ken Finger.

Click cover page below to download the full article.


The Amber Files

Unbeknownst to some, UCMP is home to a large collection of amber-encased insect specimens. While some of the most famous amber fossils come from the region south of the Baltic Sea, the majority of UCMP’s amber collection hails from the Chiapas region of Mexico, illuminating never before captured environments of the Western Hemisphere.

Spanning nearly two decades from the mid-1950s through the 1970s, efforts to collect and study these specimens were spearheaded through collaboration between the UC Museum of Entomology’s Paul D. Hurd, Jr. and Ray F. Smith and UCMP’s J. Wyatt Durham. With the help of friends near and abroad through years of fieldwork and research, the Mexican amber project was able to paint a fresh picture of Chiapas insect diversity during the Miocene. The project drew together experts from around the world to identify and describe the insects encased in amber, resulting in scientific publications, radio broadcasts, magazine articles, and more.

Check back to this blog often for inside looks into the amber project brought to you by the Council on Library and Information Resources Hidden Collections Grant and the UCMP archives.

"Field Notes": Devonian liverworts and Permian conifers

Susan Tremblay (left) and paleobotanist Carol Hotton (right) talking liverworts

Susan Tremblay (left) and paleobotanist Carol Hotton (right) talking liverworts

On a cold Berkeley morning late in March paleobotanist Cindy Looy and grad student Susan Tremblay hopped on a plane to Washington DC. Their goal was not to enjoy the gorgeous spring weather and peaking cherry blossoms, but instead to search for clues to the early evolution of plants in the collections of the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). Devonian liverworts and Permian conifers were on the menu.

Pallaviciniites devonicus, described by Francis Hueber in 1961, is one of the oldest known fossil liverworts. The shale from which the fossils originated, a locality in Eastern New York, has been completely quarried and used for road repairs. Until recently the taxon was thought to exist only in the form of six type slides. However, on a previous visit to the NMNH, Devonian specialist Carol Hotton pointed Cindy to several cabinets with the original shales collected by Hueber. One of our goals was to re-examine the material.

Cindy Looy taking notes on Early Permian conifer branches

Cindy Looy taking notes on Early Permian conifer branches

At first glance the shales don’t seem to contain any fossils at all. But when looked at with a stereo microscope using polarized light a variety of plant fossils, including liverwort thalli, become clearly visible. A selection of this material was shipped to the UCMP, where preparations are being made to free the fossils by dissolving the matrix. P. devonicus and other Paleozoic liverwort taxa have dark cells scattered across their surfaces. These are hypothesized to be homologous to the scattered, oil body containing-cells of some extant liverworts. Susan will use morphometrics and biogeochemical information to test possible homology. This might elucidate the evolution and possible function of these mysterious organelles found only in liverworts, the sister group to the rest of the land plants.

Cin’s quest to reconstruct the early history of the Paleozoic conifers also continued. The earliest conifers are small trees with a growth habit similar to that of extant Norfolk Island Pine. They played a prominent role in the composition of plant communities in the equatorial Euramerican floral realm during the Late Carboniferous and Early Permian. Conifers generally fossilize as leaves or isolated shoots, or fragments thereof. The specimens studied were collected by Cindy and NMNH colleagues and originate from an Early Permian seed-plant-dominated flora from Texas. The presence of complete branch systems provides valuable information about the life history of the plants that produced them. New finds from New Mexico were loaned for further study at the Looylab.

Cal Day 2011 is here!

It's that time of year we've all been waiting for: Cal Day!

This Saturday marks the one day a year UCMP opens its doors to the public and plays host to a number of events aimed to expose all those who are interested to the fascinating world of fossils.

Stop by the Valley Life Sciences Building for festivities that range from digging for bones to learning about climate change. Found a fossil you need identified? Our experts have set up shop to help you out with just that. Don't forget to pick up tickets for guided tours of the museum collections early in the day (they run out fast!) and stop by the t-shirt table to check out this year's new design featuring the ever-charismatic Metasequoia.

For our complete schedule of events, click here!

Cal Day is a campus-wide event. Visit the Cal Day website for more information and activities.

National Fossil Day at UCMP

Yesterday was the first ever National Fossil Day and UCMP pulled out all the stops!

Come check out the new online exhibit, Fossils in our parklands: Examples of UCMP service and stewardship, featuring fossils in UCMP's collection from national and state parks in California, Nevada, Oregon, and Montana. The museum played a pivotal role in the creation of some of the featured parks and we're happy to highlight our shared histories.

Additionally, the 2011 UCMP Fossil Treasures Calendar is now available for purchase! Click here to take a peek at the stunning photos included in the calendar and to find out how to purchase it online. If you're in the area, you can drop by in person for a discounted price. Remember, proceeds help fund graduate student research in the field of paleontology.

Finally, have a look behind the scenes at our in-house celebration...

(Event photos courtesy of Nathalie Nagalingum.)

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.