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Molly Wright's Trip to the Smithsonian Collection

National Museum of Natural History

DAY 1 (5/17/2011): I work with Professor Roy Caldwell to study the evolution of the behaviors and morphology of mantis shrimps – pugnacious crustaceans that are distant cousins to lobsters, true shrimps, and crabs. Mantis shrimps use fearsome raptorial appendages to smash or spear their prey. Even more surprisingly, some mantis shrimps live in male-female pairs in sandy burrows, with both sexes caring for the young and sharing food. Social monogamy, when a single male and female live as a pair for an extended period of time, is very rare among crustaceans, so I’m naturally interested in how it arose.

Molly Wright and her husband, Tim Dulac, at the airport.

In particular,  I’m really curious to find out whether lifestyle traits, such as living in sandy burrows or ambush hunting, may have opened the door for the evolution of social monogamy.  To try to answer my questions, I will be looking at some of the thousands of mantis shrimp specimens housed at the Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Museum Support Center. By looking at the morphologies and behaviors of different mantis shrimp species and considering their evolutionary histories, I hope to figure out whether the evolution of morphological traits like the relative size and shape of eyes, raptorial appendages, and body shape, is correlated with the evolution of social monogamy, ambush hunting, and burrow-living.

I’ll be updating this blog while I am in Washington D.C. with more about my research and lots of tasty tidbits about mantis shrimp biology.  So stay tuned!




Just a few of the many mantis shrimp specimens at the National Museum of Natural History.

DAY 2 (5/19/2011): My first day in Washington D.C. started off with a 6am wakeup call, followed by a rushed morning of picking up a rental car at Dulles International Airport, driving to the nearest metro station to take a train into Washington D.C., and literally running to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History to make my 9:30am appointment to obtain a visitors badge. Then, before I could even catch my breath, I was on the Smithsonian Employee shuttle and off to the Museum Support Center (MSC) in Maryland.

The MSC houses all of the invertebrate collections that are stored in ethanol, as well as many of the Invertebrate Zoology research labs. Museum Specialist Karen Reed met me at the entrance of the building. Karen led me through the labyrinth of hallways in the MSC, set me up at a work bench with all the tools I needed, and oriented me to the Crustacean collections, helping me select some specimens to get started on. The Crustacean collections take up two large rooms in the MSC. Walking through shelves containing thousands of specimens, I was continuously distracted by amazing creatures - giant American lobsters, spiny lobsters, giant isopods, and king crabs, all stored in jars of slightly yellowed ethanol. This place is great!

By the time I collected my specimens, it was time to eat lunch. The entire Invertebrate Zoology staff eats together everyday, which is great for visiting scientists like me because it gives us a chance to get to know everyone. After lunch, I set up my camera and started taking pictures. In half a day, I got through most of the Nannosquilla (a genus of small mantis shrimps) and started up on the Lysiosquillina (a genus of HUGE mantis shrimps), taking more than 100 pictures of animals ranging from 10mm to 30cm!


A. Molly is photographing mantis shrimps at the National Museum of Natural History to better understand how their morphology and behaviors have evolved. B. Lysiosquillina maculata specimens collected from French Polynesia. C. A nannosquilloid mantis shrimp. Nannosquilloids are among the smallest mantis shrimps, while the lysiosquilloid mantis shrimps are among the largest.

After a long, but fruitful, day at the MSC, I finally got to head to the apartment that my husband and I are renting for the next week and a half. It felt great to collapse on the couch and put my feet up. After a quick nap, my husband and I went out for a quick dinner – of course, I had to order the crab cake and shrimp dish because there’s nothing quite like eating the animals you study!

Molly's dinner on her first night in Washington D.C. She enjoyed two different crustaceans, blue crabs and shrimps, as well as some delicious scallops.




A giant mantis shrimp, also known as a zebra mantis shrimp.

DAY 3 (5/20/2011): Today I examined several specimens of the giant mantis shrimp (Lysiosquillina maculata), so named because it can grow more than 30 cm in length. This species is often called the zebra mantis shrimp because of it’s striking black stripes. Although color usually fades when crustaceans are preserved in ethanol, many specimens that I looked at this afternoon still had vibrant yellow bodies with dark stripes.


Giant mantis shrimps and other members of the Lysiosquillina genus have fascinating behaviors.  They are socially monogamous. Heterosexual pairs dig long, U-shaped burrows in the sand. Males in this genus usually do the hunting, waiting at the opening of the burrow for a fish to swim by then grabbing it from the water column with their long, sharp raptorial appendages. Then they share the food they catch with their mate. We have been observing one male Lysiosquillina maculata in our lab in Berkeley for many years.  He always provisions his mate first, coming back a few minutes later for more fish.

Lysiosquillina maculata is also sexually dimorphic – that is, males and females have slightly different body shapes. Males have larger eyes and longer raptorial appendages. We suspect that this might be because they spend more time at the burrow opening, catching food and defending themselves and their mates.

A. The largest giant mantis shrimp in the Smithsonian collection, over a foot long! B. A zebra mantis shrimp with it's raptorial appendages displayed.



Molly is preparing to take a picture of a large California mantis shrimp (Hermisquilla californiensis).

DAY 4 (5/23/2011): Starting my first full week at the Smithsonian this morning, I was excited to take a look at some other socially monogamous mantis shrimps in the Lysiosqulloidea clade.

After waking myself up with a big cup of coffee, I proceeded up to the large crustacean storage room in Pod 5 of the Museum Support Center with Museum Specialist Karen Reed  . I was curious to see Pod 5 for more than just it’s scientific significance because it was prominently featured as the site of the protagonist’s lab in Dan Brown’s novel The Lost Symbol. Unlike its description in the novel, it is filled with jar after jar of specimens preserved in ethanol. Karen helped me navigate through the collections, returning the specimens that I looked at last week and choosing new specimens to examine. Everything is organized with an accession number, much like in a library, otherwise if a specimen were misplaced, it might not be found again for decades or even centuries!

I pulled more than 40 specimens to examine over the next few days from several families of mantis shrimps in the Lysiosquilloidea clade – the Nannosquillidae, the Coronididae, and the Tetrasquillidae. I’m particularly interested in looking at the Nannosquillidae family because it contains both promiscuous and socially monogamous species. I hope that by looking at morphological traits that occur in socially monogamous species but not in promiscuous species, I can better understand howsocial monogamy evolved.


A. One of the larger American lobsters in the Smithsonian's wet collection. B. A giant isopod from the Smithsonian's wet collection. C. A few of the many mantis shrimp specimens that Molly looked at during her trip.



Molly's prep and picture station at the Smithsonian.

DAY 5 (5/25/2011): Today is a rather special day for me – my birthday! And what better way to spend it than at the MSC, looking at mantis shrimps?

In the past two days, I’ve photographed and measured 48 mantis shrimps – not bad, considering it takes me about 20 minutes to process each specimen! First I look up the accession number in the Smithsonian’s online database, which provides  information on when and where it was collected, as well as any notes from collection and later curation. After adding this information to an excel spreadsheet, I use calipers to measure the mantis shrimp’s eyes, antennal scales, legs, and total length. I then mount the specimen in a dissection dish with pins, getting it in just the right position to photograph. I take several shots of each animal from different view points to make sure that I am getting all of the morphological information I need, remounting it each time. I always include a small ruler in the photo so that I have an idea of the size of the animal.

This morning, I searched the wet collections for some of the rarer genera of Lysiosquilloidea. Once I measure and photograph the 13 specimens that I pulled this morning, I will have completed my survey of the Lysiosquilloidea. Of course, I couldn’t look at every lysiosquilloid mantis shrimp in the Smithsonian collection – the museum has over 400 mantis shrimps just in this super-family – but I did manage to examine at least a few examples of each genus!

Tonight my husband and I are going to celebrate both my birthday and my success thus far in the Smithsonian collections with a delicious Italian dinner!

A. The specimens, like this giant mantis shrimp, are kept in large jars with a fixative for preservation. B. Molly's stomatopod of interest, the giant mantis shrimp. C. The antennal scale, antennae, and eyes of a giant mantis shrimp. D. A close up of the giant mantis shrimp, also known as a zebra mantis shrimp.




"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.

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.

Even a mantis shrimp is what it eats

Neogonodactlyus wounds

Neogonodactlyus bredini with damage on its predatory appendage from another mantis shrimp's strikes! Photo by Roy Caldwell.

Ask most anyone what butterflies use their wings for or what fish do with their fins and you will undoubtedly hear an answer like, "Wings are used for flying and fins are used for swimming!" Some body parts just seem so well-adapted to perform certain functions; this is why there is a paradigm in biology that "specialized" body parts correspond to specific ways in which animals go about their daily business. In other words, specialization in morphology corresponds to specialization in ecology. A classic example of this concept is variation in the beaks of the Galapagos finches. Some finches have beaks adapted to crush hard seeds, while others have beaks specialized for eating insects.

However, not all animals seem to exhibit this pattern. The marine crustacean known as the mantis shrimp has legs, called predatory or raptorial appendages, which can produce one of the fastest movements in the animal kingdom. These raptorial appendages come in many shapes ranging from sharp spear-like appendages to hammer-like appendages. Mantis shrimp use their fast-moving appendages to crush open snails and other hard-shelled marine organisms, so they can eat the soft bodies inside. However, mantis shrimp also appear to eat other foods, like fish, which probably do not need to be smashed to bits before they are consumed. Even though they have specialized legs well adapted to smashing or spearing prey, some species may not use their raptorial appendages for this purpose. The goal of my research is to determine if mantis shrimp have diverse diets. Then if so, I will see how diet diversity correlates with raptorial appendage morphology across the mantis shrimp family.

First, a little background about mantis shrimp. Mantis shrimp are closely related to decapods, such as lobsters, crabs, and true shrimp. Even though mantis shrimp look like decapods, they actually branched off and became their own group 400 million years ago. Mantis shrimp have the most complex visual system ever reported in the animal kingdom. They are also one of the fastest swimmers in the sea, swimming at speeds of up to 30 body lengths per second — comparable to speeds measured in squid, which previously held the record.

But my favorite characteristic of mantis shrimp is of course their lightning fast raptorial appendages. Researchers in the Patek Lab at the University of Massachusetts and Caldwell Lab at Berkeley have found that a mantis shrimp’s predatory strike can move 23 meters per second (50 miles per hour) and produces accelerations that are comparable to a flying bullet! So it would be surprising if some mantis shrimp species were capable of this rapid movement, but didn't use it to catch prey. Hence, my study of mantis shrimp diets! I am using two techniques, stable isotopes and behavioral studies, to figure out which food items mantis shrimp eat.

Before I could study their diets, I first had to collect several different species of mantis shrimp and their possible prey. Most mantis shrimp live in the tropics, so I have traveled to Lizard Island, Australia and Mo’orea, French Polynesia to collect the animals. However, my main field site is in Colon, Panama where I collect at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s Galeta Marine Laboratory. After collecting, I transport all of the specimens back to the UC Berkeley Center for Stable Isotope Biogeochemistry, where I analyze the carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes of mantis shrimp and their prey.

What is a stable isotope? Let's go back to high school chemistry for a moment! A normal atom has the same number of neutrons and protons in the nucleus, but a stable isotope has more neutrons than protons in the nucleus. For example, a normal carbon atom has 12 neutrons in the nucleus, but its stable isotope has 13 neutrons. These isotopes are stable, because they do not exhibit radioactive decay over time — they won't lose that extra neutron — which means that the isotope will always have 13 neutrons in the nucleus. Researchers look at the ratio of normal atoms to stable isotopes to track diet, because the ratio of normal atoms to stable isotopes in the body of a predator can reflect the type of prey it has eaten. For example, if the mantis shrimp has a ratio of 10 carbon-13 atoms to carbon-12 atoms and the crab that you think the mantis shrimp eats has a ratio of 8, then there is a good chance that the mantis shrimp eats this species of crab. The reason why the mantis shrimp’s ratio is not exactly 8 is that there is an expected change in the predator’s ratio that occurs when the predator metabolizes the prey. You are what you eat (plus a little bit!), and stable isotopes allow us to track this pretty accurately.

Back In the laboratory, my assistants and I identify all of the prey items and stomatopods that we collected. We then take muscle tissue samples from the mantis shrimp and from the prey. We use a mass spectrometer to analyze the carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes in both the mantis shrimp and prey tissue. Finally, we compare the isotope ratios of the mantis shrimp and prey to determine who ate what. Since the mantis shrimp is what it eats, all prey items that have isotope ratios similar to the mantis shrimp’s ratios are likely a part of the mantis shrimp diet.

To confirm the accuracy of the stable isotope analyses, I also conduct behavior experiments that help me to determine which animals mantis shrimp are physically capable of eating. To do this, I stock aquaria with mantis shrimp and potential prey, and I wait to see which prey the mantis shrimp eat. So far, I have performed this experiment on only one species, but eventually I will look at many species of mantis shrimp, with different appendage morphologies, to see if mantis shrimp with different appendage shapes have different diets. Together with the isotope analyses, these experiments will give me a good picture of mantis shrimp diet and ultimately lead to an in-depth understanding of the relationship between raptorial appendage morphology and diet across the mantis shrimp family. This fall, I’ll return to Panama to complete my field experiments, so stay tuned for updates in future blog posts!

To learn more about Maya's research, watch the Paleo Video Field notes: Collecting stomatopods on the Great  Barrier Reef.

Neogonodactlyus wounds Mo'orea collecting Panama collecting stomatopod 2 stomatopod 1 tanks for behavior experiment Dissecting specimens

Marine vertebrate paleontology in Half Moon Bay

Paleontology along California's coastline

Paleontology along California's coastline. A) Fieldwork on the coast often involves climbing up ledges to get access to just one more meter of outcrop. B) A fossil tooth of the great white shark, Carcharodon carcharias. C) A freshly collected tympanic bulla of an extinct porpoise (Phocoenidae).

This week, we welcome guest blogger Robert Boessenecker. Bobby has been interested in paleontology since he was a kid. He grew up in the Bay Area; when he found Miocene shark teeth in the Santa Cruz Mountains, he was hooked.  He first got involved with the UCMP when he was a high school freshman — he visited the museum with his dad, to interview UCMP Assistant Director Mark Goodwin for a school project. Bobby is now getting a Masters' degree at Montana State University. He studies the taphonomy and preservation of marine vertebrate fossils in the Mio-Pliocene Purisima Formation of Central California.

After the completion of my first year of college, I was relaxing during my family's annual vacation at Lake Tahoe. While at the beach I received a phone call from my uncle; a surfing buddy of his had discovered a bunch of fossil bones somewhere near Half Moon Bay. I was excited, primarily because few discoveries of fossil vertebrates had been made along the San Mateo County coastline. I knew that much of the county's shoreline was made of the Purisima Formation, a rock unit I was familiar with from collecting fossils in the Santa Cruz area.

The Purisima Formation is late Miocene and Pliocene in age (7-2.5 Mya). In the Santa Cruz area, fossils of sharks, rays, skates, bony fish, sea birds, walruses, fur seals, dolphins, belugas, baleen whales, and sea cows had been discovered. With such a diverse fossil assemblage, I knew there was serious potential for discovery at this new spot in Half Moon Bay.

A day or two after we returned from Tahoe, my friend Tim Palladino and I followed directions to the locality, and sure enough, it was all Purisima Formation. When we arrived, the exact spot the surfer pointed out was up along a two foot wide ledge overhanging a thirty foot drop to the beach; neither of us were crazy enough to try climbing up there, and we decided to explore elsewhere. Shortly thereafter, we discovered several bonebeds with abundant bones and invertebrate shells preserved. Because the locality was on government-owned land, collecting without a permit was illegal.

After returning to Montana for my second year of college, I applied for (and eventually received) a permit, so that I could return to the locality and establish a collection. In summer 2005, I returned, and discovered a fossil skull of a baleen whale. The excavation took four days and half a dozen volunteers, but eventually the skull was excavated and wrapped in a plaster jacket for safe transport back to Montana. After the plaster jacket was removed that fall, I found that the skull was also encased in a concretion — the sandstone closer to the middle of the skull had been cemented with calcium carbonate, the same mineral in limestone. Needless to say, preparation took four and a half years, and was only finished in March 2010.

In 2006 I returned to the locality. We made two major finds that summer: the nearly complete skull of a fossil porpoise, and a complete lower jaw of the "'dwarf"' baleen whale Herpetocetus. In addition to these finds, by the end of 2006 I had collected several shark teeth (including those of great white sharks, basking sharks, angel sharks, a mako shark, and even a sawshark), fish bones, the humerus of an extinct flightless auk (Mancalla diegensis), bones and teeth of a walrus and a fur seal, and multiple ear bones of porpoises and several baleen whales (Herpetocetus, a right whale, and a rorqual whale). All of this fossil material is currently under curation for UCMP collections. UCMP has more fossil material from the Purisima Formation than any other repository, and now it is the recipient of an entirely new fossil assemblage from the Purisima. All in all, the collection includes several hundred specimens that represent 22 different species of marine vertebrates.

To learn more about Bobby's research, check out his blog, The Coastal Paleontologist.

Bobby Boessenecker in the field 1 Bobby Boessenecker in the field 2 Purisima Fossils Paleontology along California's coastline

Middle schoolers and marine biodiversity in Moorea

GK-12 students in MooreaScientists from institutions like the UCMP travel all around the world and interact with many local communities. Last year the Berkeley Natural History Museums launched a project called the GK-12 Moorea fellowship to foster collaboration between graduate students and local communities in Moorea, French Polynesia. The program sends one graduate student to Moorea, a small island about 10km from Tahiti, to teach interactive science lessons in public schools and do ecological research. As the current GK-12 Moorea fellow, I am living in French Polynesia, teaching in a local middle school, and continuing my research on the evolution of monogamy in mantis shrimps.
For the past five weeks, I have been teaching lessons about marine biodiversity in two special education classrooms at the middle school in Pao Pao, Moorea. We kicked off the biodiversity unit with a field trip to a local public beach, where the students collected many animals from the shallow, sandy lagoon. The kids had a great time wading in the water, looking under rocks, and using a huge “Slurp Pump” to suck up critters that live in burrows. For many of these students, the lagoon is their backyard and they have been swimming, boating, and fishing in it since they were old enough to walk. Yet, I soon realized that for most of them every crab that they saw was just a crab and every snail was just a snail. They didn’t notice the differences between different species at all!

The students now have spent several lessons learning how to identify species and measure biodiversity using the collection that we made at the public beach. To measure the biodiversity of the public beach, the students are counting the number of species of mollusks (snails, clams, and octopuses) and decapods crustaceans (crabs, shrimps, lobsters). Although the students had an intuitive knowledge about how to classify organisms into mollusks and crustaceans, they were very skeptical when I showed them the thirteen different crab species we caught — they repeatedly told me “Toutes sont les crabbes” (They are all crabs)! I finally decided to try an impromptu activity — the students drew pictures of several different species of crustaceans and listed ways in which they differed. In doing this, they convinced themselves that each species was a morphologically unique group of organisms. The funny thing is that scientists at UC Berkeley argue all the time about the definition of “species” and whether “species” really exist. Species are notoriously hard to define — as Darwin said in On the Origin of Species, “No one definition has satisfied all naturalists; yet every naturalist knows vaguely what he means when he? speaks of a species.”

I love doing research on a small tropical island. In addition to the staff at Gump Station, I also have made friends with several Mooreans who live near sites where I collect mantis shrimps. One of my favorite research sites, Motu Tiahura, is frequented by picnicking families. The children often ask to see my animals. It is great fun to see their eyes widen as they look at my mantis shrimps swimming around in a falcon tube. I often explain my research to their parents — I study the evolution of monogamy in mantis shrimps. Monogamy is rare in crustaceans, but is common in the clade of mantis shrimps that I study. One of these monogamous species, Lysiosquillina maculata, or “varo” in Tahitian, is an expensive and overfished culinary delicacy here in French Polynesia. People here are fascinated to learn that the “varo” can live together in monogamous pairs for decades! They also love to check out my SCUBA diving setup and hear about my research methods.

During the height of my fieldwork, I dive for 3 or more hours a day surveying and collecting smaller mantis shrimp species. The backreef of the Moorean lagoon is a great place to dive. It’s clear, shallow waters abound with colorful fish and large coral heads. Since arriving in Moorea, I have learned all of the common fish and coral species so that I can do environmental surveys in areas where I collect mantis shrimps. As a naturalist, I love being able to name all of the species in the waters around me. Here in French Polynesia, many locals who fish for a living feel the same way. However, as in most developed countries, the younger generations are often less connected with nature. As I work and teach here in Moorea, I hope to open the eyes of my young students to the amazing marine ecosystem that surrounds them.

Gump Station, Moorea Moorea Moorea GK-12 5 Moorea GK-12 6 Moorea GK-12 2 Moorea GK-12 3 Moorea GK-12 4 Moorea GK-12 1 Moorea GK-12 7 Moorea GK-12 8

Paleo Video: Kaitlin Maguire at the John Day Fossil Beds

Watch this video and join UCMP graduate student Kaitlin Maguire on a field trip to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument! After visiting the park last spring, Kaitlin decided it's the perfect place to do her dissertation research.

"When you do a field project for paleontology, especially if you're looking for fossils, you never know what you're going to find — you never know if there's going to be enough data," says Kaitlin. But paleontologists from the UCMP and elsewhere have been studying the John Day Fossil Beds since the early 1900s. "There's a wealth of information to build on," she says. "I'm not just walking into the unknown."

A few fun facts about the John Day Fossil Beds:

  • The fossil beds, in eastern Oregon, were named for the John Day River, which runs through the area. The river got its name because of an incident that occurred at the river's mouth in 1812. A fur trapper named John Day was robbed by Native Americans — he was relieved of all of his belongings, including his clothes. Thereafter, the river was referred to as the John Day River.
  • Over 35,000 fossil specimens have been excavated from the John Day Fossil Beds. Many of those specimens were collected by UCMP paleontologists; the UCMP collections include thousands of fossils from John Day.
  • The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument has a paleontologist on staff, as do several other National Parks. Learn more about paleontology at the John Day on the Monument's website.

A summer studying snails in the Caribbean

Cpica_webI am a graduate student with the UCMP and the Department of Integrative Biology at Berkeley, and I study the biogeography, conservation biology, and microevolution of molluscs. From July through August of 2009, I traveled to nine islands in the Eastern Caribbean looking for Cittarium pica, a large, marine gastropod, or snail. This species has many common names, including West Indian Topshell, burgao, burgos, cingua, magpie shell, wilke, and “whelk”, which is why knowing the scientific name is so important!

Cittarium pica is the largest snail that lives along rocky coasts, reaching a maximum width of 13.6 cm! Since at least the Pliocene, about 5.2 million years ago, the species has lived in the West Indies and along the Caribbean coasts of South and Central Americas. Humans have fished this snail since they first arrived in the region, eating the meat and using the shell for both jewelry and as tools.

Conducting research on the islands of the Caribbean and Northwestern Atlantic is a breathtaking experience, both because of the spectacular views and because it’s hard work! When I found locations on the islands with C. pica populations, I recorded the size and location of individuals within the intertidal zone. I will use this information to assess the fishing pressure on island populations, determine the habitat preferences of the species, and map the distribution of habitat during the Pleistocene. This map can then be used to predict the future distribution of C. pica habitat as the sea level rises due to global warming. During the Pleistocene, sea level fluctuated from ~130m below to ~6m above present day sea level!

At each site, I also collected tissue samples from 25-30 snails (taking them does not fatally harm the animals) to determine the genetic variation of the species on both local and regional scales. These data will provide information on the patterns of larval dispersal within the region and help to identify populations that are at high-risk of local extinction (due to low genetic diversity).

During six weeks of fieldwork, I collected 385 tissue samples from 13 different field sites, conducted ten population surveys, recorded habitat and size information for 2,542 individuals, and collected shells from each site. Whew! I had a busy six weeks! While exploring the rocky coastlines, I also found C. pica fossils in Barbados and several locations with fossil corals. I didn't have a permit to collect fossils, so I'll have to return to those sites in the future.

This trip was the third of four field seasons for my dissertation research. To read more about my summer adventures, please check my research blog.

My 2009 fieldwork was funded by the American Museum of Natural History, Unitas Malacologica, and the Reshetko Family Scholarship Fund.

Cittarium pica Anguilla Barbados C. pica fossil Map of the Caribbean C. pica shell tools

Field notes: Collecting stomatopods on the Great Barrier Reef

UCMP graduate student Maya deVries traveled to Australia's Great Barrier Reef this summer, to collect stomatopods for her research. She shares her underwater adventure in this video.