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A Walk Through California's National and State Parks

Wednesday, October 12, 2011, was this year's National Fossil Day and if you missed the festivities, you can still celebrate our Earth's natural history by visiting your local, national, or state parks. To learn more about fossils and the UCMP, check out the East Bay Science Cafe next Wednesday, November 2, when UCMP's Dave Lindberg will talk about "The History of Kelp Forests: Global and Local Surprises." You can also hear from UCMP graduate students, Jenna Judge and Rosemary Romero, at Discovery Days at AT&T Park on Sunday, November 6, one of the many events at this year's Bay Area Science Festival.

Who Ever Said Turtles Were Slow?

Turtles have been around for hundreds of millions of years, but it turns out most North American turtles we see today are new to the block.

Museum scientist Pat Holroyd and retired paleontologist Howard Hutchison have been exploring UCMP's vast collection of fossil turtles from Wyoming in hopes of tackling the little addressed question of how turtles and other aquatic reptiles respond to changing climates.  These fossils have managed to tell the story of several ancient takeovers back in the Eocene, about 55 million years ago.  The Eocene was when several abrupt global warming events took place - the first of which defines the start of the epoch, the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) - and semi-tropical forests extended across the northern United States.

It turns out that with warming temperatures came a case of turtle wanderlust.  While most groups of North American animals are thought to disperse via high latitude dispersal routes (like along the Bering Land Bridge or through Greenland) to the continent they call home, some reptiles, especially turtles and lizards, also opted to disperse from the south as new corridors opened up during the PETM.  The eclectic mix of creatures in North America resulting from these long treks included pond turtles and tortoises from Asia and mud turtles and river turtles from Central America.

These foreign arrivals rapidly dominated their new environments, reminiscent of classic invasive species dynamics.  And this doesn't only happen in the PETM.  Another warming event later on in the Eocene has the same signature turnover, but with a new set of immigrants, including the ancient relatives of today's tortoises.  But while the composition of North American turtles during these times shifted dramatically in favor of the migrants, there is no sign that there were any extinctions of the locals.  They merely got shunted into relatively smaller abundances.

So it is critical to understand dispersal and dispersal routes in order to understand how the composition of a fauna changes in response to climate, stresses Pat.  It'll be interesting to see how the turtles respond to the modern age of global warming.

CAL:BLAST at Bodega Bay, June 28-29, 2011

Despite a fluke June rainstorm, grad students managed to keep spirits high during two days of field work at Bodega Bay. Just as the rain began to fall, each of the graduate students — Jenny Jacobs, Misha Leong, Joey Pakes, and Rosemary Romero — welcomed 37 elementary school teachers and took them in groups of ~10 on a preliminary tour of the Bodega Marine Reserve (BMR). This would serve as an initial orientation to the buildings and the different coastal habitats that would be their focus area for the next two days.

The name of the project is CAL:BLAST — a fun acronym for a complex title — Collaborative Approach to Learning: Bridging Language And Science Teaching — and an extraordinary project focusing on professional development for 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade teachers from Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). Our goals were to increase teachers' science content knowledge as well as their interest and confidence in science, so that in turn they would increase the amount of time spent on science in their classrooms! So when we saw the predictions for rain during our stay at Bodega, we were somewhat concerned that field science might become a "tough sell," but we soon realized that this was an amazing group of teachers, and it would take more than rain to dampen their spirits!

The teachers were presented with an overarching question: what lives in the many habitats of the Bodega reserve and how do these organisms interact with one another and their environments? — clearly a question beyond the scope of a two-day field investigation, so the focus was to have the teachers become familiar with the variety of habitats and then find smaller questions that actually could be answered within that time frame and that would help to inform the larger question.

Teachers were assigned by school and geographic region to one of four "research groups" led by a graduate student and joined by at least one additional CAL:BLAST project partner from either the Lawrence Hall of Science, the Bay Area Writing Project, OUSD, or the Berkeley Natural History Museums. Each group participated in roughly the same activities, but in different habitats of the BMR.

1. Site assessments – observing habitats at different levels
Teachers used words and/or sketches to record initial habitat observations in their field notebooks. Each team then headed in a different direction, taking note of any changes that they noticed as they moved across the landscape. Once in their new location, they discussed changes noticed and then began to observe the new habitat, often making comparisons to the first.

2. Field Research: Learning field techniques – Exploring, discovering, asking questions
Depending upon the environment, teachers learned how to use a variety of tools (bug nets, beating sticks, quadrats, etc.) with which to make collections and to learn about the biodiversity of that habitat. Returning to the lab facility, teachers were asked to reflect on all that they had explored and discovered and to list a minimum of 19 questions in their notebooks that related to their field experiences. The next challenge was to determine which of these questions were testable and which they might actually be able to investigate the next morning, given the constraints of both time and resources. By the end of the afternoon, each group had identified ~ the top 10 questions of interest to them, which they presented to the whole group.

3. Evening activities
Once checked into their rooms and with dinner consumed, there was time for whole group reflection and then meetings with grad students. Teachers identified which questions would be the focus of their explorations in the morning and with whom they would be working. For those who still had some energy left, there was a night hike or time for sketching and quiet conversation, before lights out.

A summary of Day Two
Despite the early hour for a low tide, about dozen CalBlasters enjoyed some early morning tide-pooling. Then, following breakfast, it was off to the lab and a team meeting to prepare for the investigations — strategies for gathering and recording data, equipment needed, identifying study areas, etc. With rain still falling, the teachers headed to their field sites and began their investigations. Each grad student assisted their teacher teams. All data was recorded in their notebooks, and as each team completed data collection, they headed back inside for data analysis. With a short lunch break, the final task was to prepare for the upcoming symposium in which they would be sharing their findings with their colleagues.

The 2011 CAL:BLAST Bodega Biodiversity Symposium
Each research team presented their findings to the whole group, taking ~ 5-10 minutes to share their original question/hypothesis/prediction, challenges and modifications, procedures, findings, and new questions generated. They also responded to questions from their colleagues. See a PDF summary of the poster presentations.

After a celebration of watermelon and chocolate, teachers reflected on the different parts of their scientific journeys and identified strategies for incorporating the same kinds of experiences into their classrooms. A final circle of sharing took place just as the sun came out and then teachers headed back home.

Overall summary
The CAL:BLAST project team (which included the graduate students) was more than impressed by the positive energies and the depth of science that took place. Basically within less than twelve "working" hours, the teachers (novices to biological field research) arrived, became familiar with multiple habitats, learned collecting techniques, identified a testable question of interest, prepared for the investigation, gathered and analyzed their data, and presented their findings to their peers. Not bad, not bad at all!!

All images courtesy of Caleb Cheung and Jenny Jacobs

KQED Quest features Kaitlin Maguire and Lupe the mammoth!

Considering a visit to the new mammoth exhibition at the Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose?  UCMP graduate student Kaitlin Maguire provides a sneak preview of the exhibits in this Science on the SPOT video produced by KQED. Listen in as she discusses the 2005 mammoth discovery in San Jose and what the fossils can tell us.

UCMP's Spring Break in the Bay Area

It's a spring break tradition here at UCMP to organize a trip exploring the geology and paleontology of a particular region. In the past, students and faculty have traveled to places like Oregon and Baja. But why run off when there's so much to see in our own backyards?

In a series of trips to nearby parks, Integrative Biology graduates, undergraduates, faculty, and affiliates literally got their feet wet trekking across the product of the Bay Area's complex geologic history. From UC Berkeley's next door neighbor, Tilden Regional Park, to Mount Diablo State Park and Point Reyes National Seashore, we took an up-close and personal look at the physical processes that have shaped the local landscape and the rich paleontological record we are surrounded by everyday.

Stay tuned for future posts about the trips and the geology and fossils found in the Bay Area and enjoy some teaser photos below.

UCMP celebrates National Fossil Day!

On October 13, come celebrate the first ever National Fossil Day with UCMP!

National Fossil Day is a nation-wide event organized by the National Park Service in partnership with American Geological Institute to promote public awareness and stewardship of fossils, as well as to foster a greater appreciation of their scientific and educational values. It falls during Earth Science Week and we here at Cal have been busily preparing for the festivities!

To highlight the museum’s history of contribution to the world of fossils, we will be launching a special online exhibit: Fossils in our parklands: Examples of UCMP service and stewardship. The website will highlight fossil contributions from national and state parks to the UCMP collections and tell the story of UCMP’s pivotal role in the formation and preservation of some of these parks.

Also, October 13 will mark the release of the 2011 UCMP Fossil Treasures Calendar. Each month will feature a unique specimen from our collections, compiled by our resident scientists and complete with photographs and first-hand accounts. Proceeds will benefit the museum and, in particular, support the future of paleontological research through graduate student funding.

To learn more about National Fossil Day, including a list of participating events at locations across the country, visit the official website.

Fossils in our own backyard

A mammoth skull recently found in a drainage ditch in San Jose.

Museum visitors often ask if our fossils come in from expeditions to remote places. I tell them that some do, but many are found right here in California by local people or via construction projects. For example, our most recent addition to the collections is part of a mammoth along with some other Pleistocene-aged mammals. They were uncovered during the excavation of a storm water retention basin on the campus of Los Positas College in Livermore.

Our collection’s next addition of Bay Area fossils will come from one of Northern California’s biggest construction projects, in an area known to have fossils: the 4th bore of the Caldecott Tunnel. The tunnel is the major commute route through the Oakland/Berkeley Hills and less than 5 miles from UCMP. Part of the tunnel will run through the 9-10 million-year-old rocks of the Orinda Formation. We know fossils should be there. In 1936, camel foot bones were found during the construction of the tunnel’s first two bores. When the third bore was built in the early 1960s faculty and students from UCMP and CalTrans workers found jaws of rhinos, horses, and camels. These days fossils are salvaged by qualified professionals as part of construction due to the California Environmental Quality Act. Paleontologists will be on site throughout excavation.

Construction on the 4th bore of the Caldecott began in February, and fossils have already been found. These will eventually join those found in 1936 and the early 1960s and become part of the UCMP collection. Stay tuned for more discoveries as the tunnel construction continues!

Find out more:

  • The paleontology of the Caldecott Tunnel project (including photos of Pat in the UCMP collection) at Inside Bay Area.
  • Official website of the Caldecott Tunnel project.

A tribute to Dawn E. Peterson

Dawn PetersonIt is with great sadness that I report the passing of Dawn E. Peterson, who succumbed to brain cancer on June 29 at the age of 61. She was truly an extraordinary one-of-a-kind character - a bipolar, transgender, self-taught ostracodologist!

As a young man at the University of Minnesota, Don's mental disability surfaced and abruptly ended his first semester. The disorder led him to spiral downward into the darkest realms of life before settling down as a sculptor and marrying. His stepdaughter's death, however, deeply affected his ability to cope, and he could no longer masquerade in the life he had been living.

A "new Dawn" settled in San Francisco and volunteered at the California Academy of Sciences, where she assisted retired USGS paleontologist Louie Marincovich for several years. Having befriended the late Professor Fred Swain back in Minnesota, Dawn focused on ostracodes as a serious hobby, eventually delving into the professional community for reprints, advice, and resources. Soon after I joined UCMP in 2002, German malacologist Sven Nielsen asked me to look at the forams in the matrix sampled from Neogene gastropods collected in Chile, whereupon he connected me with Dawn, who was studying the ostracodes. Dawn offered to assist me and the museum any way she could, which she faithfully did for the next seven years.

Dawn was impoverished, living a minimal existence in one of the old hotels in San Francisco turned into government-funded housing for the mentally ill. Her cramped one-room dwelling included a desk with microscope, and dozens of flats of fossils and crates of literature. Paleontology was her savior, as it gave meaning to her life and it kept her busy. Her affiliation with UCMP brought her the happiness and fulfillment that had long eluded her. Her ability to work at a respectable level soon became evident, and she was acknowledged as a UCMP Associate Researcher.

In addition to her work on the Chilean Neogene fauna (Finger et al., 2007, Palaios 22), Dawn was close to completing her studies on ostracodes from a nearby urban lagoon (Lake Merritt), Galapagos terraces, and the Frasassi caves (Italy). In the meanwhile, she coauthored a paper on Cretaceous gastropods from hydrocarbon-seep carbonates in California (Campbell et al., 2008, J. Paleont. 82). UCMP also capitalized on Dawn's experience in preparing fossils (and sculpting) by having her skillfully work on the San Jose mammoth. Typical of her generosity of self, she arranged to have her body donated to the UCSF Medical School.

The UCMP community will miss Dawn greatly.

Dawn Peterson

The latest UCMP newsletter is now online

new UCMP storage facilityFind out even more about what's happening at UCMP by reading the latest online edition of our newsletter. Read about how we've secured important fossil collections by moving them from run-down off-site storage to an immaculate new facility. Find out how UCMP fared at the latest Cal Day. Get an update on the field work of paleobotanist Cindy Looy in Caprock Canyon State Park. Plus a letter from the director, awards, accolades, and more!

And if you'd like to receive the UCMP newsletter by mail when it's hot off the presses (or alternately as an emailed PDF file), consider becoming a Friend of UCMP.

Global warming and declining mammal diversity: new research in Nature

Pleistocene survivor, the deer mouse.  Photo by Glenn and Martha Vargas © California Academy of Sciences

Pleistocene survivor, the deer mouse. Photo by Glenn and Martha Vargas © California Academy of Sciences

Popular images of Ice Age California tend to feature enormous, extinct mammals like mammoths and saber-toothed cats.  By contrast, new research published in Nature examines populations of small mammals that survived through the end of the Ice Age and how they were affected by the climate change.

The research team of Jessica Blois (formerly at Stanford, now at University of Wisconsin, Madison), Elizabeth Hadly (formerly of UCMP, now at Stanford) and Jenny McGuire (UCMP) studied fossilized woodrat nests collected from Samwell Cave in Northern California.  Woodrats carry scat and regurgitated pellets produced by carnivores back to their nests.  These collections are filled with undigested small mammal bones, making fossilized woodrat nests treasure troves for paleontologists.

Comparing fossil data to modern small mammal populations in the same region revealed a big decrease in diversity during a period of global warming at the end of the Pleistocene Epoch.  There was a decrease in both species richness (number of different species) and evenness (relative dominance of species within a community).  A few species disappeared from the area entirely.  Some species remain in the area but as a much smaller proportion of the overall small mammal community.  And the main species to increase in relative abundance was the deer mouse — an animal that can tolerate a wide variety of habitats and climates.

Research of historic periods of global warming improves our understanding of how modern, man-made global warming will affect life on Earth.  Read more about this research: