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Archive for the ‘Working in the collections’ Category.

Encounters in the field: UCMP and the US Geological Survey

Buchia specimens

Buchia crassicollis specimens collected by J.S. Diller in 1899. Photo by Erica Clites.

Hundreds of specimens from the former USGS Menlo Park Collection, now housed in the UC Museum of Paleontology, were collected in the pioneering days of geological and paleontological exploration of California. This includes fossils collected by Charles A. White, Timothy W. Stanton, Joseph S. Diller and other legendary figures at the US Geological Survey. The newly founded Department of Paleontology at UC Berkeley also led numerous expeditions and excavations of vertebrates in California in the early 1900s; John C. Merriam and his crews discovered two hundred separate remains of Triassic reptiles in the Hosselkus Limestone, exposed in Plumas and Shasta Counties.1

In the summer of 1902, US Geological Survey and UC Berkeley paleontology crews had a chance meeting in the field near Redding. Along with Merriam, the Berkeley crew included preparator Eustace Furlong, as well as museum benefactress Annie Alexander and her traveling companion, Katherine Jones. Jones' diary recorded Alexander's encounter with Joseph Diller of the US Geological Survey while washing her hair in a stream. Diller asked "all sorts of leading questions as to the plans of our party and in fact knew our movements as well as we did." Alexander "gave as evasive answers as possible"1, not wanting Diller to co-opt their discoveries. Diller spent his career in the Pacific Northwest, and although not a paleontologist, he collected hundreds of fossils for the US Geological Survey. Despite the suspicion surrounding their initial meeting, Diller later referred Merriam to exposures of the Hosselkus Limestone in Cow Creek, where in 1910, Merriam and his crew discovered the skull and partial skeleton of the ichthyosaur, Shastasaurus.

Partial Shastasaurus skull

Partial skull of Shastasaurus pacificus (UCMP 9017) collected by John C. Merriam from the Late Triassic of California. Figure by Sander et al. (CC BY 3.0).2

Working closely with the USGS and associated UCMP collections, it is clear that UCMP and US Geological Survey staff visited many of the same places. I enjoyed reading this confirmation of such encounters. It seems fitting that the fossils collected by these two storied institutions are now reunited in the UC Museum of Paleontology.

1 Hilton, R.P. 2003. Dinosaurs and other Mesozoic Reptiles from California. University of California Press. 356 pp.

2 Sander, P.M., X. Chen, L. Cheng, and X. Wang. Short-snouted toothless ichthyosaur from China suggests Late Triassic diversification of suction feeding ichthyosaurs. PLoS ONE 6(5):e19480.

Cataloging the archives: Paleontology specimen exchange

How do natural history museums build their collections? The UCMP's fossil collection is largely a product of decades of field work by past and present researchers. As the State's fossil repository, the museum also receives a large number of fossil finds from construction sites in California (for example, the Caldecott Tunnel). Another, perhaps less appreciated means of acquiring scientifically valuable specimens, is specimen exchange between institutions — it's a bit like a holiday gift exchange but without the surprise factor, and the gifts are appreciated by all participants.

If you have visited the Valley Life Sciences Building (VLSB) at Cal recently, you may have seen the skeleton of an ichthyosaur (Stenopterygius, UCMP specimen no. 116080) just down the hall from where the popular T. rex stands. It's a marine reptile that superficially looks like a big fish or dolphin; it lived during the Jurassic Period, about 180 million years ago.

Ichthyosaur skeleton

Ichthyosaur skeleton on exhibit in VLSB today. Photo by S. Tomiya.

How did this skeleton, which was found in Germany, end up in the UCMP? You guessed it — specimen exchange! The story actually begins in the early 20th Century, before the museum was established. We know this because of an old letter found in the archival collections at The Bancroft Library on campus.

von Huene letter

1912 letter from Friedrich von Huene to John C. Merriam. Reproduced with the permission of The Bancroft Library.

Written in 1912, this letter from German paleontologist Friedrich von Huene to John C. Merriam (who at the time was the Chair of the Department of Paleontology at Berkeley) describes ichthyosaur specimens that were being packed for shipment to California. Item No. 1 in von Huene's list ("big specimen, 3.50 m long: skeleton good, skull bad") is the skeleton on display today. In exchange, von Huene asks for specimens of the dire wolf (Canis dirus) and saber-toothed cat — two iconic carnivores from the Pleistocene "tar pits" of Rancho La Brea in Los Angeles, where their bones had been freshly dug out by Merriam and his crew. This exchange was presumably a win-win deal for the two researchers because Merriam had a strong interest in ichthyosaurs, and von Huene had just toured the United States, visiting museums and possibly collecting fossils at the La Brea tar pits1.

The ichthyosaur made it across the ocean. We don't know what shape the specimen was in when it arrived in the East Bay after what must have been a treacherous journey for heavy fossils. In the late 1970s, a dozen or so pieces of the skeleton were found (reportedly under the Hearst swimming pool) and given to the Senior Museum Preparator, Mark Goodwin, for repair. After exquisite restoration by Mark (who is now an Assistant Director of UCMP), the ichthyosaur was reborn and put on display in the Earth Sciences Building (now McCone Hall), where it remained until 1995.

Mark Goodwin preps the ichthyosaur

Ichthyosaur skeleton being restored in 1979. Image courtesy of M. Goodwin.

That year, the museum moved from the Earth Sciences Building to VLSB, and the ichthyosaur went into storage at the Clark Kerr Campus. But in 2009, UCMP Director Roy Caldwell had the specimen retrieved and displayed in its current location, where it now catches the eye of building visitors and residents alike. Like ancient artifacts in art galleries, many specimens in natural history museums have long and complicated post-discovery histories of their own. And, of course, we would know very little of that history without the documents archived at The Bancroft Library and UCMP.

Moving the ichthyosaur from Clark Kerr to VLSB

Ichthyosaur specimen in transit from Clark Kerr Campus to VLSB in 2009. Photo by M. Goodwin.

Finally, what happened to the exchange specimens from Berkeley? We have not found a record of shipment from California, but two mounted skeletons of dire wolf and saber-toothed cat in the Palaeontological Collection at the University of Tübingen (where von Huene worked) may be the gifts from Merriam to his colleague. Can you spot the carnivore skeletons in one of their exhibit halls?

1Unprepared Rancho La Brea fossil material in the Palaeontological Collection of University of Tübingen is associated with von Huene's field label dated as 1911 (P. Havlik, personal communication, 2013).

Special thanks to Susan Snyder of The Bancroft Library for permission to post von Huene's letter, Philipe Havlik of the University of Tübingen for information regarding La Brea carnivore specimens in their collection, and Mark Goodwin of the UCMP for information on, and images of, the Stenopterygius specimen on display.

Reports from Regatta: T.W. Stanton, prominent contributor to the USGS Invertebrate Collection

In the orphaned U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) Menlo Park Invertebrate Collection, now housed in the UC Museum of Paleontology’s off-campus collections space in the Regatta Building, the work of prominent USGS collectors stands out. One of these dedicated and proficient invertebrate paleontologists was Timothy William Stanton, who amassed collections from over 100 localities, authored monographic research papers, and wrote more than 600 technical reports evaluating the age of collected specimens.

Stanton was born on September 21, 1860, in Monroe Country, Illinois. Early in his life, Stanton moved to Boulder, Colorado, where he received his Bachelor of Science and Master of Science from the University of Colorado. Stanton continued his graduate education in biology and geology at John Hopkins University and received a doctoral degree in those disciplines in 1897 from George Washington University.

Stanton’s name is encountered most often in association with Cretaceous invertebrates. His affinity for Cretaceous invertebrates developed when he lived in Boulder, surrounded by fossil-rich sediments of Cretaceous age. Stanton incorporated his research interests into his professional life when he was hired at the USGS and worked as an apprentice to Charles Abiathar White in the Cretaceous invertebrate collection. Starting in 1889, Stanton slowly made his way up the USGS ladder; he succeeded White as the head of the Cretaceous invertebrate collection, became the geologist in charge of the Paleontology and Stratigraphy branch, and in 1932, he became chief geologist of the USGS. Additionally, Stanton served as the president of the Geological Society of America and president of The Paleontological Society.

Bivalves

Bivalve specimens collected by Stanton in the Santa Susana Mountain Range, just north of Los Angeles. These specimens were collected during October of 1900, and constitute a small sample of Stanton’s fieldwork along the Pacific Coast. USGS Locality Number 2251.
 

During his time at the Survey — that spanned over 46 years — Stanton maintained field research in Texas, Colorado, the Gulf Coastal Plain, and the Pacific Coast. While working in Colorado, Stanton produced a comprehensive description of Cretaceous fauna in a monograph entitled The Colorado Formation and Its Invertebrate Fauna. The work is still valued as a remarkable text.

Stanton retired from the Survey in 1935, however, he continued to act as the Custodian of Mesozoic Invertebrates at the US National Museum (now the National Museum of Natural History) until his death in 1953. Throughout his career, Stanton managed a balancing act between acquiring remarkable collections from his fieldwork efforts and the responsibilities of the multiple positions he held at the USGS. Stanton’s success is both reflected in the history of the USGS and his contributions to the Menlo Park Collection. UCMP is honored to permanently house this collection and to manage its care and access for current and future scientists. The collection is a remarkable paleontological record that is being updated and cared for by UCMP students and scientists in the 21st Century.

Invertebrate specimens

Various Cretaceous invertebrate specimens collected by Stanton during September of 1900 in Colusa County, CA. USGS Locality Number 2290. Photos by Michelle Sparnicht.

Reports from Regatta: Two Cal Alumni and the USGS Menlo Park Collection

Nelson letter and envelope

The letter from Cliff Nelson to Warren Addicott.
 

As undergraduate work-study students recataloging the United States Geological Survery (USGS) Menlo Park Invertebrate collection at the UCMP, we've come across the names Nelson and Addicott time and time again in extensive database entries or on the original, yellowing locality cards paired with each specimen. The names of the paleontologists and geologists responsible for collecting these fossils in the Menlo Park collection are largely unknown to us, but found immersed within the aging drawers of the invertebrate fossils were several curious and antiquarian documents that have brought these names to life. One recently discovered letter, written by UC Berkeley alumnus Cliff Nelson records his activities in the collections during the summer of 1974.

In the letter, Nelson discusses his dissertation work that focused on migration patterns of Neptunea, a large sea snail indigenous to the North Pacific. While studying the migration traces of Neptunea through the North Pacific and to the North Atlantic and California Current, Nelson proposed to elevate Neptunea beyond the level of subgenus. His dissertation interpreted Neptunea as a genus, with the inclusion of 56 named species — half of which are extinct. The letter goes on to explain Nelson's use of the Menlo Park collection and the late nights he spent scavenging through the collections, searching for invertebrate specimens to support his dissertation.

The letter also delivers some insights on other individuals who played an important role in Nelson's research. Warren Addicott, the recipient of Nelson's letter (and another popular name found often in the Menlo Park Collection), obtained his doctorate at UC Berkeley in 1956 and led a distinguished scientific career at the US Geological Survey. The letter concludes with Nelson's gracious thanks to Addicott for his help with his dissertation and an acknowledgment to Dr. Stearns McNeil, another familiar name associated with the Menlo Park collection and the USGS.

After receiving his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley in 1974, the year the letter was written, Nelson went on to publish over fifty articles in refereed journals and books. His work primarily focused on the history of scholarship, ideas, and institutions in natural sciences. Currently, Nelson works as a geologist and historian at the USGS. In 2011 he received the Friedman Distinguished Service Award from the Geological Society of America's History and Philosophy of Geology Division.

Letters such as this one help us discover the identities of the names we come upon so frequently. This is just one of many documents that shines light on the Menlo Park collection and allows us to reconstruct the UC Museum of Paleontology's historic and scientific past.

Neptuneidae specimens

USGS gastropod specimens (Family Neptuneidae) studied by Nelson during the course of his doctoral study at UC Berkeley. Left: A specimen from USGS Cenozoic Locality M863 Pliocene, Gubick Formation of Alaska, Colville River. Right: A specimen identified by Nelson as Beringius beringii; from USGS Cenozoic Locality M860 Pleistocene, Gubik Formation near Point Barrow village, Alaska. Both specimens were collected by John O'Sullivan pre-1960.

Cataloging the archives: Chaney, the Emperor and Metasequoia

Another in a series of blog posts relating to the museum's "cataloging the archives" project

The UCMP archives contain five large scrapbooks containing museum-related newspaper clippings dating from 1948 to 1989. The earliest clippings in the oldest scrapbook concern UCMP paleobotanist Ralph Chaney's 1948 trip to central China to see for himself, Metasequoia, a tree thought to have been extinct since the Miocene. The existence of this living fossil had just been publicized in a paper by Hu and Cheng1. The San Francisco Chronicle made a big deal about Chaney's trip, sending one of their own writers along, who filed a series of reports.

Chaney and Metasequoia

Left: Metasequoia is a deciduous conifer and was leafless when Chaney first saw it in March of 1948. See an enlargement. Middle: Chaney photographing the tree pictured at left in 1948. See an enlargement. Right: Chaney took this photo on a later visit when the tree was in leaf. See an enlargement. All three of these images are from Chaney's lantern slide collection.

But it was a later clipping from the October 20, 1953 Daily Californian that caught my attention. It concerned an interesting relationship between Chaney and Emperor Hirohito of Japan. Here's an excerpt:

"Chaney, on a routine trip to Tokyo and the Far East in 1949, personally presented the Emperor with five Dawn Redwood [Metasequoia] trees, which were planted on the grounds of his estate in Tokyo.

"Chaney had known the Emperor from past visits to Japan, and said yesterday he was inspired to make the gift when he heard that Hirohito was very interested in the tree.

"In 1949, when Chaney was in China, he procured five seedlings of the recently discovered tree and delivered them to the Emperor.

"Chaney received occasional news of the progress of the trees, and made a point of stopping to see them whenever he was in Japan. When Crown Prince Akihito visited the campus recently, he presented the professor with a progress report of the trees sent from Hirohito."

Then, while looking at digital photos of Chaney's lantern slide collection — volunteer photographer Dave Strauss has photographed Chaney's entire collection of lantern slides and glass negatives for the museum — I noticed one of a Japanese gentleman standing next to what looked like a Metasequoia sapling. Hmmm …. So I went online and studied a number of photographs of Hirohito. I am now convinced that the image is of the Emperor himself with one of Chaney's saplings!

Hirohito article and lantern slide

Left: The article from The Daily Californian describing Chaney's gift to Emperor Hirohito. See an enlargement. Right: Emperor Hirohito with one of Chaney's Metasequoia seedlings. See an enlargement.

And then a clipping from the May 6, 1969, University of California Clip Sheet provided this progress report: "By now, the Japanese have planted 100,000 dawn redwoods, all descended from Chaney's seedlings."

You never know what cool story you're going to find in the archives!

See other blog posts in this series:

   • Cataloging the archives: Geology camp 100 years ago

   • Cataloging the archives: Unearthing a type

   • The Amber Files: Words from the University Explorer

   • The Amber Files

See newsletter articles about the archive cataloging project:

   • The Mellon Foundation CLIR grant

   • Cataloging the archives: Update I

   • Saluting our volunteers [primarily about our volunteers working on the cataloging project]

Or search UCMP's archival collections yourself!
 

1Hu, H.H., and W.C. Cheng. 1948. On the new family Metasequoiaceae and on Metasequoia glyptostroboides, a living species of the genus Metasequoia found in Szechuan and Hupeh. Bulletin of the Fan Memorial Institute of Biology New Series 1(2):153-161.

Photo shoots for UCMP science

This semester, the UCMP has been excited to host a visiting photographer, UC alum Dave Strauss.  A self-described "computer guy" for the last 42 years, he is also an avid naturalist, hiker, and mountain biker.  Dave finds inspiration at the UCMP through the opportunity to use his talents to communicate evolutionary and historical knowledge to the broader community.

A juvenile Triceratops specimen gets its moment in the spotlight.

Collaboration with Dave has provided many opportunities to contribute to science.  He has confronted technical challenges photographing unwieldy Triceratops fossil fragments with Assistant Director Mark Goodwin, to photographing tiny tadpoles just beginning to grow their skeletons with graduate student Theresa Grieco.  He is also assisting with the CLIR/UCMP archive project, documenting and digitizing historical records, particularly more unusual items like lantern slides (for examples of lantern slides depicting California geology, click here).

Dave's willingness to experiment with lighting, lenses, and artistry has paid off - he has helped at least 7 different researchers get great images for their work.  He finds he is learning more about photography as his paleontology collaborators push the boundaries of optics and camera technology with unusual requests, and he is able to quiz them about the most current research projects going on in the UCMP.

You can find some of Dave Strauss's work, including images from the UCMP collections, at his website.

Dave examines the fineness of detail captured in preparations of Xenopus tropicalis tadpole jaws.

The Amber Files: Words from the University Explorer

Polished amber in the Museum of Amber in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. (Photo by Alejandro Linares Garcia (CC BY-SA 3.0))

"More than 300 years ago, Sir Francis Bacon spoke of amber as 'a more than royal tomb' for tiny insects. Twentieth century scientists may quite agree."

But how do insects end up as amber fossils?  What else is found in amber?  How are these amber fossils prepared for study?

The answers to these questions can be found in one of the hidden collections of UCMP's archives — the 1561st broadcast of "The University Explorer." This show was narrated by Hale Sparks, former head of broadcasting for the University of California, during which time he ran two educational radio shows — "Science Editor" and "The University Explorer."

Mosquito encased in Miocene-aged amber from the Dominican Republic. (Photo by Didier Desouens (CC BY-SA 3.0))

The October 6, 1957 broadcast of the program, entitled "Forever in Amber," featured Berkeley entomologist Paul D. Hurd, Jr. It follows the path of an ancient insect as it becomes entombed in amber, uncovered, prepared, and studied. The narration moves from the famous Baltic amber deposits to Berkeley's own amber research efforts in Chiapas, Mexico, and from the struggles of a small fungus gnat caught in sap to the thrill of a scientist's discovery.

"These insects, which were so remarkably preserved in the fossilized tree gums of the prehistoric forests, are now clearly visible to us in amber. They often appear to be virtually alive."

A complete transcript of "Forever in Amber" can be found online here or as a pdf.

The Amber Files

Unbeknownst to some, UCMP is home to a large collection of amber-encased insect specimens. While some of the most famous amber fossils come from the region south of the Baltic Sea, the majority of UCMP’s amber collection hails from the Chiapas region of Mexico, illuminating never before captured environments of the Western Hemisphere.

Spanning nearly two decades from the mid-1950s through the 1970s, efforts to collect and study these specimens were spearheaded through collaboration between the UC Museum of Entomology’s Paul D. Hurd, Jr. and Ray F. Smith and UCMP’s J. Wyatt Durham. With the help of friends near and abroad through years of fieldwork and research, the Mexican amber project was able to paint a fresh picture of Chiapas insect diversity during the Miocene. The project drew together experts from around the world to identify and describe the insects encased in amber, resulting in scientific publications, radio broadcasts, magazine articles, and more.

Check back to this blog often for inside looks into the amber project brought to you by the Council on Library and Information Resources Hidden Collections Grant and the UCMP archives.

In "Dr. K's" footsteps: A glimpse of Turkey in the UCMP paleobotany collections

Acorn cups of oak (Quercus), 20 Ma, Güvem, Turkey

Why would a Swedish paleobotanist go to the UCMP during a cold summer to study a collection of early Miocene plant fossils from Turkey instead of going to Turkey to enjoy a warm summer and great fieldwork? The reason - UCMP is home to a collection of fossil plants made over 40 years ago by Turkey native Dr. Baki Kasapligil (1918-1992).

Born in Çankaca, Turkey, Baki was raised in Istanbul – his father was Turkish and his mother from the country of Georgia. As a young man he attended UC Berkeley receiving his PhD in Botany in just three years (class of 1950) and then went on to teach at Mills College in Oakland, CA, where he was affectionately known as "Dr. K," and retired professor Emeritus. Baki travelled several times to Turkey in the late 1960s to collect plant fossils. His goal was to make a diverse collection with as many different species as possible. Throughout his career he kept close ties with Berkeley, encouraged by paleobotanists Ralph W. Chaney and Wayne L. Fry to study the Turkish fossils, especially given his strength in structural and systematic botany. With their help, he received NSF funding in 1976 to study the flora. He published a preliminary report in 1977 entitled "A Late-Tertiary conifer-hardwood forest from the vicinity of Güvem village, near Kızılcahamam, Ankara," but it seems as the years passed (no doubt juggling a full teaching load, administrative duties, and other botanical interests), Baki had less time to work on his Turkey collection. At 73, he unfortunately died before completing his monograph.

Today, collecting plant fossils in the Güvem area is more restrictive than was the case so many years ago when Baki made his collections. This is partially because the Güvem area is now famous for a wonderful petrified forest and has become Turkey's first-ever geopark, a nice parallel to the State or National Parks in the U.S. In addition to the geopark, Turkey has numerous excellent Tertiary plant localities, but the macrofossils from these sites are not well studied.

This spring I spent a great time in western Turkey collecting thousands of plant fossils from various lignite mines with colleagues and my PhD student, Tuncay Güner, from Istanbul. These localities have been dated as early to middle Miocene using pollen and spores, but their precise age is still debated. However, we have found a well-dated locality close to Ankara, in the Güvem area. This reference site contains plant fossil strata interbedded with volcanic sediments that have been radiometrically dated at about 20 Ma. These fossil beds are equivalent to those that Baki collected, so we know now his flora is much older than was previously thought.

So how did I get to know about this collection? By chance, I e-mailed Diane Erwin to send me some high resolution images of cleared leaves to compare to fossils I had collected in Turkey this spring. When she learned that I was working on Miocene floras in Turkey, she told me about Baki's collection. The decision was made quickly – I had to see the collection. And it paid off.

Besides enjoying the great hospitality of the people working at the UCMP, Baki Kasaplıgil's collection is indeed a key fossil plant assemblage for the early Miocene of the Eastern Mediterranean. It is extraordinarily rich in plant taxa and very distinct in composition from other southern European localities of the same age. Not only will it give us new insights into the Neogene vegetation and climate history of western Eurasia, but it will also help us better understand the phytogeographic links between Eurasia and North America. During the two weeks I stayed in Berkeley, I took about 5000 pictures of plant fossils and I, too, hope to compile a monograph of the Güvem flora in the nearest future.

Thomas Denk is Senior Curator in the Department of Palaeobotany at the Swedish Museum of Natural History.

In collaboration with Diane M. Erwin, UCMP Paleobotany

Paleo Video: Snail shell mystery

If you study snails, you’ve got to be patient. But two UCMP graduate students, Jann Vendetti and Scott Fay, used time-lapse photography to kick slow snails into high gear. They discovered some surprising behavior in snails living today—and in snails that lived millions of years in the past.

The video features snails of two species: Kelletia kelletii, and Busycotypus canaliculatus (also known as Busycon canaliculatum). This group of animals is so numerous and diverse—in lifestyle, natural history, and morphology—that research questions are virtually infinite.

Shortly after we made this film, Jann and Scott graduated from UC Berkeley with Ph.D.s in Integrative Biology. Jann is now a post-doc at Cal State Los Angeles, studying photosynthetic sea slugs called sacoglossans.  And Scott is a post-doc at Temple University, in Philadelphia; he studies the trophic ecology of Antarctic protists. While they work on disparate groups, their potential for collaboration continues: Jann’s sea slugs and Scott’s dinoflagellates have a similar strategy for energy acquisition: they both steal chloroplasts.