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Barnosky on Earth's tipping points in Nature

Twenty-two scientists including lead author Tony Barnosky urge us to understand the danger of global environmental tipping points in their review paper in the June 7 issue of Nature. They examine data from past global environmental changes, compare it to how humans are changing the planet today, and discuss what that could mean for our future. They conclude that if we continue at our current rates of environmental destruction and resource use there will be dramatic impacts on the quality of life for coming generations.

For more information on the paper, including a video interview with Barnosky and a summary of how this research ties to The Berkeley Initiative in Global Change Biology, read the full press release at the UC Berkeley News Center.

Dispatches from Clear Lake, part 1

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 will report back to us with all the progress and drama from the field. Here's our first set of dispatches.


Assembling the barge

From Ivo Duijnstee:

Thu, April 26

First mud
It has begun. Except for some minor delays, the Clear Lake drilling expedition had a relatively smooth start. When our seven-headed UC Berkeley team arrived on site in Lakeport California, six members of the not-for-profit drilling company DOSECC had already assembled the large drilling barge to the point that it was almost good to go. Not much later, three sediment core curators of the National Lacustrine Core Facility (LacCore) arrived; completing the drill team in charge of the first days of this enterprise.

Fri, April 27

Today, a boat pushed the barge to its first drilling position in the southeastern part of the northern branch of the lake. This is in a part of the lake with a thick continuous sediment package. The deeper layers date back at least to the warm part of the previous interglacial (~130,000 years ago), a period we are very much interested in, as it may provide an analog for the current climate change in California.

Sat, April 28

From our Rocky Point base camp on the other side of the water, we can barely make out the barge’s position, as the sizeable drilling barge is reduced to a mere speck on the horizon. The inconspicuousness changes dramatically when night falls and the needle in the haystack turns into a beacon of light, as soon as the flood lights on the barge are switched on.

Tonight, the night crew (on the barge everyone works in two 12-hour shifts) made their way to the barge in the former county fire boat. This boat was made available for the crews’ semidiurnal commute by our collaborators of the Lake County Water Resources Department. Around 11PM, word reached base camp that the DOSECC drillers hoisted the first sediment core up on deck.

The barge has been moved out to the drill site.

Sun, April 29

This morning the night crew brought the uppermost 28 meter (93 ft) of sediment cores ashore, so the Holocene is taken care of. Let’s dig deeper into the Pleistocene!

Cindy Looy with the first core sample.

We have some cores!

So far, things are going smoothly on the drill platform. The day crew is off to their 12 hour shift, and the night crew is heading to bed. At the house in Rocky Point — our base camp — we are starting our pile of sediment-filled transparent tubes in the garage.

Mon, April 30

It’s media day!

Almost all day, camera crews, radio journalists, newspaper photographers and reporters were buzzing around, interviewing UCB/UCMP’s Cindy Looy and Liam Reidy, DOSECC Director of Operations Chris Delahunty and LacCore scientist Ryan O’Grady as they made visits to our floating drill site. We’ve had so much attention already, and the UCB press release is yet to come!

Chris Delahunty being interviewed for KQED radio.

The timing of the media is perfect: just like the weather, everyone in the team is in a sunny mood since the team has reached a greater depth than the USGS did at the same location during its 1973 Clear Lake drilling program. That means that the teams first target (115 m, or 377 ft) has been reached, and there is more to come.


At about 140 m (460 ft) into the sediment, it’s over with the monotonously greenish grey playdough that has filled the plastic core linings so far. In the dark, the night crew has struck gravel, making it impossible to get anything out of the lake bed. Fortunately, the drillers have some tricks up their coverall sleeves. For now they are mixing a special kind of mud that the day shift will use to get through the gravel layer. They will pump the muddy mixture into the borehole so that the gaps between the chunks of gravel will be filled with sticky goo; enabling the drillers to get the loose gravel out.

Tue, May 1

Alas, despite the fact the DOSECC team successfully crossed the gravel layer, things are not going well. Beyond the gravel layer there is sand and more gravel. Now things are going this slow, we decide that it is better to stop drilling at this site, and get started on a second hole nearby. As the two drillers prepare the drilling equipment for the move to the next hole, the scientific part of the night shift gets to spend an unexpected night in the house, where it is warm and couches are comfy... perhaps a bit to comfy when you are trying to stick to the nocturnal routine of the graveyard shift...


Renske with an armload of cores.

From Renske Kirchholtes:

Wed, May 2

*S*  hifts are 12 hours long and days start incredibly early

*C*  ores are covered in mud and so are we

*I*  ncessant noise of the generators, shrouding the barge in heavy diesel fumes

*E*  very day starts at 5.45am

*N*  o matter what happens, the entire crew is always in great spirits

*C*  lear Lake is a neat location and the weather is close to perfect

*E*  asily one of the coolest projects I have ever been part of!

See more text, audio, and video coverage of the Clear Lake drilling project here.

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.


NeoMap: An important step toward answering macro-scale questions

In science we are often confined to studying processes that occur on local scales. This is a natural place to begin and there is great value in understanding local events and processes, but the ultimate goal, at least in my mind, is to synthesize all these smaller snapshots of how living things interact and respond to their environments into a cohesive, whole-world portrait. This kind of comprehensive understanding is particularly important in light of global climate change, which demands that we develop conservation strategies that address broader issues than conservation has in the past. The "Holy Grail," in this regard, would be data covering the whole earth and all taxa, throughout the history of life. Regretfully, this is unlikely to ever be fully realized; however, there has been a recent blossoming of databases, containing all kinds of biological data from across the globe that begins to build toward this overarching ambition. Of particular relevance to paleontologists is the Neogene Mammal Mapping Portal (NeoMap), which holds records of mammalian fossils from the last 30 million years in North America.

NeoMap unifies two free-standing, open-access databases—the Miocene Mammal Mapping Project (MioMap)2, hosted by the UCMP, and the Quaternary Faunal Mapping Project (FAUNMAP)3,4—and enables the user to access and download any published (and some unpublished) data on fossil mammals (along with complete metadata), to map the localities where these fossils were collected, and to generate tables of species abundances (minimum number of individuals). These tables can be easily modified for more specific purposes, for example, to estimate species/area relationships or to assemble a taxonomic list for an entire region during a given period of time. This means that research addressing a wide variety of macro-scale questions is now possible using NeoMap—previously, these kinds of projects were prohibitively laborious, because they required extensive and exhaustive literature searches followed by painstaking data standardization.

A recent example of the utility of NeoMap is described in a book chapter by Tony Barnosky (UCMP), Marc Carrasco (UCMP), and Russell Graham: Collateral mammal diversity loss associated with late Quaternary megafaunal extinctions and implications for the future (chapter in "Comparing the Geological and Fossil Records: Implications for Biodiversity Studies"1). This paper explores whether all of the biodiversity loss exhibited by mammals at the end of the Pleistocene can be explained by extinction of megafauna. The authors found that over and above the loss of large mammals that went extinct, there was local and regional loss of diversity because geographic ranges of species got smaller. That "collateral diversity loss" resulted in an additional 6-51% diversity reduction, depending on location, that was on top of species loss by extinction. This collateral loss affected small mammals even more than large mammals1. The bottom line is that extinction is only one symptom of diversity loss, and local or regional extirpations compound and intensify the massive ecological changes that take place during biodiversity crises like the one we are experiencing today.

This project illustrates two tools that make NeoMap so powerful: paleo-areas were drawn and measured in NeoMap using the BerkeleyMapper utility, and species presence/absence tables were generated using the MioMap EstimateS Web Service, which queries all the points selected in BerkeleyMapper and returns the data as a sites-by-species table. In my own work, fellow UCMP grad student Michael Holmes and I have used NeoMap to study how the distribution of species in different body size and diet functional groups has changed through time in the Northern Great Plains. Our analysis has shown remarkable stasis in the relative number of species in each functional group across millions of years, except during two periods of rapid climate change: the end of the Mid-Miocene Climatic Optimum, and the Pleistocene/Holocene transition5.

To use the database, learn more about it, or read about other examples of research using NeoMap, go to

1. Barnosky, A.D., Carrasco, M.A., Graham, R.W., 2011, Collateral mammal diversity loss associated with late Quaternary megafaunal extinctions and implications for the future. Comparing the Geological and Fossil Records: Implications for Biodiversity Studies. Geological Society, London, Special Publications. 358:179-189

2. Carrasco, M.A., Kraatz, B.P., Davis, E.B., Barnosky, A.D., 2005. Miocene Mammal Mapping Project (MIOMAP). University of California Museum of Paleontology

3. FAUNMAP Working Group, 1994. FAUNMAP: a database documenting late Quaternary distributions of mammal species in the United States. Illinois State Museum Scientific Papers 25(1-2):1-690.
4. Graham, R.W., and E.L. Lundelius, Jr., 2010. FAUNMAP II: New data for North America with a temporal extension for the Blancan, Irvingtonian and early Rancholabrean. FAUNMAP II Database, version 1.0.

5. Stegner, M.A. & Holmes, M., 2011. Using paleontological databases to assess spatial and temporal conservation of mammalian community structure as an aid to conservation planning. Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Meeting, Las Vegas, NV.

Berkeley Initiative awarded $2.5 million from Moore Foundation

The Berkeley Initiative in Global Change Biology (BiGCB) was recently awarded a $2.5 million dollar grant by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.  The grant funds seven major projects and involves the participation of faculty members in eight departments and four of the Berkeley Natural History Museums on Berkeley's campus, including UCMP and IB faculty Cindy Looy, Tony Barnosky, and Charles Marshall.  Projects focus on using novel methods to understand the past, present, and future of the biosphere, ranging from obtaining a high resolution record of climate change using lake cores to applying theory-based metrics to analyze biological change.

Established in November 2009, BiGCB is an initiative bringing together over 100 Berkeley faculty and researchers to collaborate in the field of global change biology.  The Initiative is focused on integrating multiple disciplines to better predict how the biosphere will be affected by global changes through careful understanding of these changes in the past and present.