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Waterlogged wood on the seafloor and the critters that call it home

For a marine biologist, I spend a lot of time thinking about wood. What happens to it if it happens to wash into a stream? How much of it gets into the ocean? Where does it sink? What happens to it once it reaches the bottom? What animals are likely to make it their home?

I’m far from the first to think about the role of wood in ocean systems. In fact, Darwin thought quite a bit about how plant material might make its way into the ocean and how long different kinds of wood might stay afloat before sinking …

“It is well known what a difference there is in the buoyancy of green and seasoned timber; and it occurred to me that floods might wash down plants or branches, and that these might be dried on the banks, and then by a fresh rise in the stream be washed into the sea. Hence I was led to dry stems and branches of 94 plants with ripe fruit, and to place them on sea water. The majority sank quickly, but some which whilst green floated for a very short time, when dried floated much longer ….”
— Darwin, excerpted from On the Origin of Species, Chapter 11, 1859.

While Darwin’s focus was on wood as a rafting vehicle for dispersal, I am interested in the flip side: what happens to that wood once it sinks (where it is no longer useful for transporting land-dwelling animals)? Is the wood very useful to certain specialized denizens of the deep? Like Darwin, I recognized that there may be different effects depending on what kind of wood is involved, therefore, I set out to test whether the kind of wood matters in shaping the community of animals that colonize it.

About two and a half years ago, I had an opportunity to sink material from ten very different plants with support from Jim Barry and his lab at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI). We took the research vessel Western Flyer to a site about a day's steam from Moss Landing, CA, and with help from the remotely operated vehicle Doc Ricketts, we placed 28 wood bundles on the seafloor about two miles below the surface.

Processing wood and extracting clams

Left: On board the Western Flyer, Jenna and Rosemary Romero process wood after it was brought up from the seafloor. Right: Connie Martin carefully extracts clams from a chunk of Ginkgo wood.

For two years I waited, not knowing whether I would ever see my beloved wood bundles again. But thanks to the expertise of my colleagues and good weather, I was able to retrieve every single wood bundle last October.

Since then, the lab has been quite the scene with six — yes, I said six — undergraduate research assistants busily extracting animals from the inside of logs and off the surface of leaves and needles. Each of them has developed an eye for detail that only hours upon hours of sorting tiny animals under the microscope can give you. Together we are sorting through heaps of critters and pulling out the patterns that make each colonist community different on each type of wood. Already patterns are emerging, but it will take more sorting, photographing and identifying organisms with help from taxonomist colleagues at other museums and institutions before we have the full story. Please stay tuned!

Christopher Castaneda sorts critters

Christopher Castaneda sorts critters and records his observations.

Learn more about this research in an interview that aired on the radio talk show The Graduates with Tesla Monson on KALX, April 22, 2014. You can download the audio podcast on iTunes.

Links to related articles and posts:

— This research was funded in part by the UCMP, Sigma Xi Berkeley Chapter, Conchologists of America, AMNH Lerner-Gray, and American Malacological Society. The wood used in this research was collected from a variety of sources, including the Tilden Botanical Garden, City of Berkeley, UC Berkeley campus, and other helpful businesses and individuals.

Grad student's artwork graces journal cover

“There are great color reconstructions of dinosaurs, so why not a plant?” thought Department of Integrative Biology and UCMP grad student Jeff Benca when he set out to reconstruct the appearance of a 375-million-year-old Devonian plant. Using Adobe Illustrator CS6 software, he constructed a striking three-dimensional, full-color portrait of a stem of the lycopod Leclercqia scolopendra, or centipede clubmoss. This was no small feat, considering that the fossil plant Jeff was illustrating was a two-dimensional compression.

Jeff Benca and journal cover

Left: Jeff Benca with museum visitors on Cal Day 2014. Photo by Pat Holroyd. Right: Jeff's artwork on the cover of the March 2014 issue of the American Journal of Botany.

The illustration appears in a paper by Jeff and coauthors Maureen Carlisle, Silas Bergen, and UCMP alum Caroline Strömberg in the March 2014 issue of the American Journal of Botany. Jeff’s illustration graces the cover of the issue (see photo above).

Read more about Jeff and his work with fossil and living lycopods at the UC Berkeley Newscenter. Read the abstract for the paper, "Applying morphometrics to early land plant systematics: A new Leclercqia (Lycopsida) species from Washington State, USA."

Following The Graduates on KALX Berkeley

Tesla at the microphone

Tesla Monson, KALX radio talk show host.

UCMP and Department of Integrative Biology graduate student Tesla Monson, a second-year graduate student in the Hlusko Lab, is the host of a new talk show, The Graduates, on KALX Berkeley, kalx.berkeley.edu! KALX is a UC Berkeley and listener-supported independent radio station and an ideal platform for The Graduates, a show featuring Tesla interviewing UCB graduate students about their research. Debuting on Tuesday, April 8, at 9:00am, The Graduates will air every other Tuesday, from 9:00 am to 9:30 am on KALX Berkeley, 90.7 FM.

Tesla’s first two interview subjects are UCMP graduate students. On April 8, Ashley Poust will discuss dinosaurs and early mammals, and on April 22, Jenna Judge will talk about deep-sea marine biology. Stay tuned!

Audio podcasts of all The Graduates interviews are available on iTunes.

The geology and paleontology of the Caldecott Tunnel's Fourth Bore

Tunnel cross-sectionThe fourth bore of the Caldecott Tunnel opened to traffic on November 16, 2013, and if you're an East Bay resident, chances are good that you've been through it once or twice (at least!). Did you realize that each time you drive through the tunnel you're passing through several million years of accumulated sediment that has been pushed up on its side?

Want to know more about the rocks the tunnel cuts through and the fossils found in them? As part of an agreement between UCMP and the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), the museum has created a web-based feature focusing on the geology and paleontology of the tunnel's fourth bore. The feature covers …

… the tectonic history of the East Bay

… the geology of the East Bay Hills

… the preparations taken prior to excavation of the fourth bore

… the method and sequence of excavation

… and the fossils that have been prepared and cataloged (so far).

Erica, PaleoPortal, and the National Fossil Day connection

Erica working on an exhibit

Erica working on an exhibit at the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

Before coming to UCMP, Erica Clites — currently working on an NSF-funded project to rehouse and digitally image the orphaned USGS Menlo Park invertebrate collection out at the Regatta facility in Richmond — spent about two and a half years with the National Park Service. In 2010 she coordinated a nationwide outreach effort for the first NPS-sponsored National Fossil Day, which was held on October 16th this year. Read an interview with Erica about her work with the NPS on the Park Service's National Fossil Day website.

While at the NPS, Erica worked with Vince Santucci of the NPS Geologic Resources Division. At the same time, Vince was helping UCMP with its "Fossils in US National Parks" module on The Paleontology Portal website; he provided much of the park and fossil data necessary to create the module, which, by the way, was made in support of National Fossil Day.

Who lived here before the Giants?

For the third consecutive year, UCMP participated in the Bay Area Science Festival at AT&T Park as one of several Science@Cal exhibitors. The November 2, 2013, festival drew more than 28,000 science fans and Lisa White, Tripti Bhattacharya, and volunteer CJ Dunford staffed a UCMP table. With a theme of "Who lived here before the Giants?," the UCMP fossil display and activities were a big hit with the little fans!

BASF photos

Left: A young scientist examines a fossil oyster. Right: Staffing the UCMP table are (from left) Tripti Bhattacharya, CJ Dunford, and Lisa White.

The 2014 UCMP Fossil Treasures Calendar is now available

March 2014 calendar spread

Examples of the scientific illustrator's art

Early this past year, as UCMP continued its efforts to catalog the museum's archival collections, a small collection of original scientific illustrations were rediscovered. These pieces represent the work of a number of talented scientific illustrators who produced images for the publications of UCMP curators, staff, and students between the years 1934 and 1991. All who saw these works were impressed by the skill, patience, and steady hand required to produce them. Therefore, it was decided that this art should be the focus of the 2014 calendar. Thumbnails of each month's primary illustrations can be seen below.

Contact Chris Mejia at cmejia@berkeley.edu or call 510-642-1821 to obtain your 2014 UCMP Fossil Treasures Calendar, a tribute to the museum's scientific illustrators. They're only $10 each (plus postage) and all proceeds support museum research, education, and outreach.

And for the collectors out there, a few copies of the 2013 UCMP Fossil Treasures Calendar are still available for a mere $2.

Calendar thumbnail images

Werning co-authors paper on growth in Parasaurolophus

Baby Parasaurolophus reconstruction by Tyler Keillor

Artist's restoration of the head of "Joe," the baby Parasaurolophus. Illustration by Tyler Keillor.

Recent Ph.D. grad Sarah Werning, now in a postdoctoral position at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, was a major contributor to a paper released today on ontogeny in Parasaurolophus, a Cretaceous hadrosaurid dinosaur notable for the hollow, bony tube on its skull. The study centers around a remarkable skeleton of a baby Parasaurolophus (nicknamed "Joe") discovered in 2009 by Kevin Terris, a student at The Webb Schools in Claremont, California, in exposures of the 75-million-year-old Kaiparowits Formation, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah. The Webb has been taking students to Grand Staircase-Escalante to prospect for and collect dinosaur bones for several years.

Werning did histologic studies of the six-foot-long specimen and found that the animal was not even one-year old when it died. Sarah reported that "Dinosaurs have yearly growth rings in their bone tissue, like trees. But we didn't see even one ring. That means it grew to a quarter of adult size [25 feet] in less than a year."

Three-dimensional scans of the entire skeleton were made and are freely accessible online. See the paper, along with the 3D scans, in the open-access journal PeerJ. Co-authors on the paper are Andrew Farke of the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology, Claremont, California, and Webb students Derek Chok, Annisa Herrero, and Brandon Scolieri.

Read more about "Joe" and see photos and video relating to the recovery, preparation, and study of the specimen.

Read more about Sarah's research on her website.

A whale of a find

The upper Miocene-Pliocene Purisima Formation near Capitola, California, is well known among avid fossil collectors and popular with beachcombers. While this seaside shallow marine deposit contains rich assemblages of clams, snails and other invertebrates, fossil vertebrates such as whales, fishes, and birds are the most prized. Happily this is a case in which amateurs and scientists have often partnered to exchange fossils and report findings. Fossil hunters Frank Perry, Stan Jarocki, and Bobby Boessenecker recently donated several important fossils from the Purisima Formation to the UCMP: a five-million-year-old whale skull and two ear bones from dolphin-like marine mammals. Descriptions of these fossils were published in the journal Acta Paleontologica Polonica as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle.

Understanding Science is now in Portuguese

Você fala português? If so, you’ll be pleased to learn about Understanding Science’s new Portuguese translation, led by Unversidade de Lisboa Principal Researcher Nuno P. Barradas and his team. Nuno and colleagues recently promoted Understanding Science in Portuguese at a community science event in the town of Estremoz, east of Lisbon. Science on the Streets was organized by Portugal’s national agency for public awareness of science, Ciência Viva ("Living Science"), and the Understanding Science flowchart featured prominently in the display!

Science on the Streets

Nuno P. Barradas (left) promoting Understanding Science at the Science in the Streets event in Estremoz, east of Lisbon, Portugal. Photo courtesy of Nuno P. Barradas.