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Fossil neighbors

Jessie drivingAbout once a month, I drive from Berkeley to Walnut Creek to pick up specimens for my thesis (dead birds for a study of the evolution of development in Aves), which necessitates a pass through the Caldecott Tunnel. Each time, I heave a sigh and try to shore up my patience as traffic before the tunnels slows to a stop. However, this bane has recently metamorphosed into an object of great interest, for it has come to my attention that the construction here is also uncovering of one of Earth’s most alluring treasures: fossils!

The construction workers are burrowing through rocks that are 9 to 16 million years old. Here, the hills have yielded thousands of fossils of all types of organisms, from plants, to vertebrates and invertebrates, to microfossils (very tiny plants and animals). They, in turn, provide clues to the past flora, fauna, and paleoenvironment of the Bay Area. Who knew that such a wealth of fossils could be found so nearby?

This semester, I am fortunate enough to be a Graduate Student Researcher (GSR) in the UC Museum of Paleontology (UCMP), a position funded by the California State Department of Transportation (known locally as Caltrans) as a component of a new partnership with the UCMP. The plan, in short, is for Caltrans to deposit the fossils recovered from the 4th bore Caldecott Tunnel construction project in UCMP, and for UCMP to clean, catalogue, and curate them. For further details on the UCMP/Caltrans project, please see Mark Goodwin’s article. As the GSR for this project, it will be my job to prepare the fossils by cleaning the dirt off, gluing together what is broken, and properly curating them in the museum.

Scanning the Prep Lab

Scanning the Prep Lab from left to right. Click on the image to see an enlargement.

When I was a little girl with aspirations to become a scientist and study fossils, I was a volunteer paleontologist at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in southeastern California. It was here that I first discovered the appeal of fossil preparation, and the wonderful feeling of reward that comes after many hours of meticulous work. Thus, I am quite excited about the work that I will do over the next few months!

 

I’ve just completed a scrub-down and organization of the UCMP fossil preparation lab in anticipation of this work, and the boxes of fossils will be arriving soon! As I proceed, I will report on the exciting finds that come to light as each box is opened, and the tale these fossils recount about the paleontology and geology of the East Bay hills.

Plants have a lot to tell us about the past …

Jeff Benca is a welcome addition to the Department of Integrative Biology and UCMP’s highly active paleobotany group as a member of Cindy Looy’s lab.  However, Jeff also spends a lot of his time “up the hill” at the UC Botanical Garden, where he has been given space for his astonishing collection of lycopods that he brought with him from his days at the University of Washington. This ancient vascular plant group (along with rare carnivorous plants and orchids) actually caught his interest while he was still a high school student in Seattle, but since those days, he has not only found ways to cultivate the plants, but is conducting research on both modern and extinct members of the lineage. Jeff hopes to discover how members of the lycopod group survived and thrived through the End-Permian extinction, 252 million years ago.

Both his research focus and unabashed enthusiasm caught the attention of National Geographic’s Explorers Journal and UC Berkeley’s News Center.

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.

Accolades continue for UCMP websites

The UCMP websites continue to rack up recognition and serve users around the world. Here's a taste of the latest website news:

  • Understanding Evolution has been recognized as a key teaching resource in a recent NAS publication, Thinking Evolutionarily: Evolution Education Across the Life Sciences: Summary of a Convocation that was organized by a committee under the aegis of the Board on Life Sciences of the National Research Council (NRC) and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and held on October 25-26, 2011.
  • Understanding Evolution also received recognition as “Best of the Web” by the Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News!  Read more here.
  • Understanding Science continues to gain popularity and now has international recognition with translations underway in Polish by the Center for Citizenship Education in Warsaw and in Swedish by the Center for Biosciences and Nutrition in Stockholm.
  • Of particular interest is the Arusha project spearheaded by UCMP Faculty Curator, Leslea Hlusko, in which 37 teachers in 18 schools participated in workshops  to talk through the scientific process, how they teach it in their classrooms, and also to translate the Understanding Science flowchart into Kiswahili.  Their goal is to make this Kiswahili version of the Understanding Science flowchart available to all schools in East Africa that may be interested in it.

The Arusha Project



The Understanding Science flowchart in Kiswahili

A special night at UCMP

Cal Day is the one day of the year when lucky members of the public can tour UCMP's collection. But this year, on the night before Cal Day, UCMP hosted a special event to take some of our closest friends behind the scenes.

Excitement is in the air. Also, a T. rex tail!

 

This invitation-only event included sneak previews of Cal Day exhibits, tours of the collection, the paleo art of William Gordan Huff, and fossils recovered during the construction of the Caldecott Tunnel's fourth bore.

UCMP-affiliated faculty curators, scientists, students, and educators were on hand to present a night that our guests won't soon forget. After some mingling and introductory remarks from Director Charles Marshall our visitors were whisked into the collection to enjoy a glimpse of the exciting work happening at UCMP.

 

Charles in action.

 

Ken Finger serves up some local fossils, fresh from the Caldecott Tunnel site.

 

Renske Kirchholtes and Robert Stevenson explain the story of Metasequioa to our guests.

 

Theresa Grieco showed off monkey fossils and talked about her upcoming trip to Olduvai Gorge (photo by Silvia Spiva).

 

Pat Holroyd revealed some of the hidden treasures of UCMP being uncovered thanks to our latest archiving grant.

 

Dave Lindberg neatly demonstrated how our vast collection provides an essential historic baseline for the natural history of California.

 

Anna Thanukos took visitors beyond the collection through the museum's many education and outreach projects.

 

Ash Poust dazzled onlookers with phytosaurs, pareiasaurs, and other impressive fossils from our broad collection.

 

Brian Swartz led the group from the sea to dry land with close-up looks at some of our fishy ancestors.

 

Diane Erwin pieced together a climate change puzzle using UCMP's California plant fossils.

 

This exciting, unique UCMP experience produced many smiles and set the tone for the Cal Day to come.

For more photos from the evening see this album on Facebook.

Find out how to become a Friend of UCMP.

UCMP awarded a two-year collections improvement grant

We are pleased to announce the receipt of a grant of ~ $470,000 from the National Science Foundation – a two-year collections improvement grant to "Complete the rehabilitation of the orphaned USGS fossil invertebrate collection at UCMP."

In 1997 the University of California Museum of Paleontology (UCMP) accepted responsibility for an extensive invertebrate collection (170,000 fossils from 12,100 localities) the United States Geological Survey (USGS) Menlo Park. Unfortunately, the comprehensive documentation stored with the fossils was not preserved as archival material and was deteriorating.  Moreover, during the move the collection was scrambled, many of the wooden cases damaged, and the doors lost.  In 1998, one third of the collection was integrated into UCMP’s main collection.  This project will (1) re-house the remaining two thirds of the collection in museum-grade cabinets, (2) reorganize, re-label, and digitally capture the contents of the drawers, and (3) digitally capture and store the documentation in archival media.

This collection, largely from the West coast of North America from the last 25 million years, is unique and irreplaceable. It has generated over 1,000 publications, including systematic and biostratigraphic studies, paleoecological and paleoclimatic research, resource assessments, and geologic surveys.  Funds from this grant will provide important curatorial experiences for graduate students, engage undergraduate students in authentic research activities, and allow us to hire a Museum Scientist (invertebrate speciality) for the length of the project to direct the work.

Another award winner!

Lucy Chang, who is advised by Charles Marshall, has been awarded a three-year National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. Lucy started as a Ph.D. student at Berkeley in 2010 with a general interest in paleoecology.  Upon notification of this award, Lucy initially expressed both gratefulness and shock, but is now settling in to the wonderful realization that this will give her just the time and resources needed to move forward on a dissertation topic with an interdisciplinary approach, integrating aspects of ecology, biogeography, and paleobiology  probably focused on marine systems.

Congratulations to Lucy!

Big awards for UCMP grad students

Two graduate students in Tony Barnosky's lab, Emily Lindsey and Kaitlin Maguire, recently received the good news that they were the recipients of prestigious awards.

Emily and field crew

Emily Lindsey (second from left) with part of her field team in Ecuador. Photo by Tony Barnosky.

Emily had this to say about her Fulbright grant:

Kaitlin takes a break

Kaitlin Maguire takes a break during field work in Oregon. Photo courtesy of Kaitlin Maguire.

"I received a Fulbright award to travel to Uruguay from March to December, 2013 (the academic year for the Southern Hemisphere). I will be working with colleagues at the National Museum of Natural History in Montevideo, where we will be putting together a database of Pleistocene fossil mammals for the South American continent — where the localities are, what taxa are found there, etc. This dovetails nicely with an NSF grant that Tony Barnosky (and I and several South and North American colleagues) received in December to radiocarbon-date several hundred bones of South American Pleistocene mammals to incorporate into such a database."

Kaitlin on receiving a Louderback Fund award:

"I am surprised and honored to receive the Louderback Fellowship. I plan to use the award to study diet change in Miocene horses of Oregon using stable isotope analyses. This award recognizes graduate students for their research and service to the UCMP. George D. Louderback was a geology professor and Dean of the College of Letters and Science at UC Berkeley in the early 1900s and I am happy to join the long list of esteemed UCMP graduate students and alumni who have previously received the fellowship."

Our congratulations to both!

Judy Scotchmoor receives the Friend of Darwin award

The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) has awarded Judy Scotchmoor a Friend of Darwin award for her tireless commitment to evolution education. NCSE explains that the Friend of Darwin award "is presented annually to a select few whose efforts to support NCSE and advance its goal of defending the teaching of evolution in the public schools have been truly outstanding."

Read more about Judy, the award, and other Friends of Darwin.

UCMP loses a long-time Friend and alum - Nestor John Sander

This morning I was saddened to learn that long-time Friend of UCMP, Nestor John Sander (AKA Sandy) passed away.  He was nearly 98. Sandy graduated from Cal with a B.A. in paleontology in 1936 and completed his Masters in 1938. He then joined Standard Oil Company of California and was sent to Saudi Arabia the same year. There he was assigned to map the subsurface contours of a major anticlinal fold that is now the largest oil field in the world, Ghawar. This more than qualified him for an interview as part of an ABC television special: Crude- the incredible journey of oil.

 

Sandy was a great story teller and while most World War II history buffs encouraged conversations about his dealings with King Saud, Sandy just wanted to talk paleo.  His last visit to UCMP was some time ago as travelling became increasingly difficult for him, but his computer kept him connected, and his research never ended.  On his YouTube channel you will find a series of lectures – self-published in his home in Modesto – and covering topics of stratigraphy, foraminifera and other microfossils.  He had recently been in contact with Dave Lindberg, as he wanted to complete a series on molluscs.  He was also a published author in a more traditional sense, completing a book about the first King of Saudi Arabia whom he met in 1939 – Ibn Saud: King by Conquest.

 

A visit to his home always began with a glass of champagne, strawberries, and petit fours – a combo he often shared with his wife of many of years and of whom he spoke with much tenderness.  On our last visit, he entrusted me with a beautifully bound biography that he had written along with a photo album reflecting his life and his work.  These I delivered to the Bancroft Library in the hopes that they will be of interest to others.  He lived at a time of great world changes and he lived life to the fullest.  You can find out more about who Sandy really was by reading his mini-autobiography on the web – entitled Peregrinations of a Positivist.  I will really miss him.