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Dispatches from Clear Lake, part 2


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 reported back to us with all the progress and drama from the field.  Read part 1 here.

From UCB undergrad research assistant Robert Stevenson:

Robert documenting a core section.

Fri 4/27-Sat 4/28 Night Shift
First night shift was tough. Even with the nap I took to prep for the difference in sleeping schedule, staying awake was still pretty hard. We took the first core around ~2300 and new cores came up slower and slower as the night progressed and the deeper we went. Other than the desire to sleep, the worst experience of the night was the bitterly cold winds. Thankfully, I brought my phone out so I could listen to podcasts and audiobooks or browse the internet when I got really bored. When shift change finally happened at 0700, I fell asleep on the boat ride back. After unloading the cores from the boat and getting out of my coveralls and boots, I ate what I could and crashed within minutes of lying down in bed.

Sat 4/28-Sun 4/29 Night Shift
The second night out went much smoother. Temperatures were up and winds and waves were down. The weather change and bright lights on the barge sparked a torrent of midges to engulf the barge. Other than trying not to swallow the occasional bug, most of my time is spent listening to podcasts and audiobooks as I did the night before. Cores came up as slowly as the night before (1-1.5 hrs) but the waiting and sleep deprivation haven't been as bad. Shift change and everything else happened the same as the day before. However, after waking up from my sleep, Katherine and I decided to go fishing for bass with the kayak. The only thing we caught were the many plants in the shallow areas we ventured...

Mon 4/30
Media day. Katherine and I got up at 0500 to prep the breakfast for the scientists, drillers, and journalists.  No sooner had most of the day crew finished their breakfast, the first journalists arrived sooner than Cindy hoped. She had been practicing her answers at the table while still in her pajamas. About an hour after the day shift left, the other journalists began to trickle in. While being on the news seemed like fun, my body told me sleep was far more interesting and I fell back asleep until about 1400.

Thu 5/3-Fri 5/4 Night Shift
Cores were coming up relatively quickly for most of the night; every ~30min in comparison to the 1+hr waits from my first first two night shifts. I worked on removing material from the core catcher, a small nozzle shaped piece at the front of the tool with teeth that love to grab fingers. Things went relatively smoothly until what seemed like a relatively calm night after a day of rain changed for the worse around 0100. A light drizzle of rain and increased wind speeds meant the barge began to roll and yaw quite profusely. By ~0330, drilling had to be stopped due to the amount of wind and the possibility of damaging the drilling equipment. For the rest of the night, we all huddled up in the 10' x 6' science shack to wait out the poor weather until the day shift relieved us at 0700.

Fri 5/4-Sat 5/5 Night Shift
Wind conditions were as bad as the night before. For the first several hours, everyone stayed in the science shack and watched movies until the winds and waves finally subsided around 2000. Drilling started up again around 2030 and we got back to the dirty work of handling the cores. We got about another 15m before we hit the gravel layer again. Around 0300 and one failed attempt to drill through the gravel layer, it was decided that the drilling was done and the drill string should be brought up before the forecasted bad weather struck us again. While the drillers worked, Katherine and I tried to get what little sleep we could in the science shack. At 0700, the day shift drillers arrived and we headed out from our last day on the barge. About ⅔rd the way back from the barge, the engine on the fire boat gave out on us and we drifted aimlessly. Jokes and curses were abounded and we pulled out the two paddles on the boat as well as made a couple more paddles from core liners and duct tape. By the time we had almost agreed on who to eat first, a boat finally reached us and towed us back to the rental house. A 2 hour ordeal but not the longest time I have waited for a tow by AAA.

From grad student Tripti Bhattacharya:

Friday, May 4th
Today was a reminder that, despite the best laid plans, successful fieldwork often hinges on forces beyond any PI’s control. In short, it requires the weather to cooperate. The day started out windy, with choppy waves, which made it too risky to operate the coring system. We spent the day hoping for conditions to improve, which left a lot of time for staring off into the distance, sleeping, and being frustrated. Despite the lack of core recovery, the day did offer a chance to observe the aquatic birds of Clear Lake, which seemed drawn by the film of dead midges perpetually on the water’s surface around the barge. Among others, we saw a pair of mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos), as well as several western grebes (Aechmophorus occidentalis) and eared grebes (Podiceps nigricollis). The day ended with a relatively wild boat ride home, and the hope that conditions would improve during the night shift.

From project lead Cindy Looy:

On Tuesday May 1 we started drilling the second core. It went extremely well the first shifts at the new hole, but unfortunately the weather started to change on Thursday. We had to stop coring 2:30 pm that night because of the wave action. The weather predictions for the weekend were even more wind, with a short window during the night of Friday-Saturday. During that interval the night shift managed to get to the gravel layer 140 meters deep. Because we knew our towboat could not operate under the high wind speeds that were predicted, and we had to get off the lake by the end of Sunday, we decided to play it safe and quit operations the end of that night. The barge was towed back to Lakeport Saturday morning.

This may not sound like a happy ending, but we had a great time at Clear Lake and ended up with two perfect 140 meters of clays plus 12 meter of gravel-rich layers (that might be volcanic). The cores have been boxed up and on their way to their megafridge at LacCore in Minnesota...

UCMP welcomes Erica Clites to lead our NSF-funded collections improvement grant

Erica Clites has accepted a Museum Scientist position at UCMP to lead the NSF-funded collections improvement grant to rehouse and digitally image the USGS Menlo Park collection housed at the Regatta facility. Erica has an outstanding record, with a Bachelor's in Geology from The College of Wooster and a M.S. in Geological Sciences from UC Riverside, having completed a study on the Ediacaran fauna under Mary Droser.  She also has extensive experience with the National Park Service, including an award for her role in launching the first National Fossil Day.  She is currently managing the paleontology/geology collection at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area as well as leading the parks' GIS/Data Management Committee and will be joining us in December.


Related post: UCMP awarded a two-year collections improvement grant

Finding fossils in our national parks

National Fossil Day 2012 logo

In celebration of National Fossil Day (October 17, 2012), an event first organized by the National Parks Service (NPS) two years ago, we would like to call your attention to a feature on The Paleontology Portal website: "Fossils in US National Parks." First announced in January of this year (see the January 2012 UCMP News), the module's interactive map enables one to see all the parks where fossils are present and to find out what fossils (along with their geologic ages) are in any particular park. Improvements in the module's "searchability" have been made since then and better fossil data continue to be entered into the database.

You can now browse the more than 230 "fossil-bearing" parks by state, geologic age, fossil type, and park name. Each search is cumulative so you can continually refine your search by selecting new criteria. For example, suppose you want to find out what fossil parks exist in Utah. Select "Utah" in the States browse list and the map will show you Utah and all the national parks that are known to preserve fossils there. You can always click on any park marker to find out what geologic ages and fossils are represented in that park … but what if you want to see only those Utah parks known to have ammonite fossils? Just select "ammonites" from the Fossils browse list and those Utah parks where ammonites exist — or in some cases, potentially exist — will be shown on the map. But you're interested only in Cretaceous ammonites — no problem! Select "Cretaceous" from the Geologic Ages browse list and the map will show you only those parks with Cretaceous ammonites in Utah.

Map search results

From left, the map generated after selecting "Utah" from the States browse list; the map after then selecting "ammonites" from the Fossils browse list; and the map after selecting "Cretaceous" from the Geologic Ages browse list.

Vince Santucci and Jason Kenworthy of the NPS Geologic Resources Division and paleo-consultant Justin Tweet deserve the thanks for providing virtually all the geologic age and fossil data for the parks. This resource would not have been possible without their input. As more detailed inventories of each park's paleontological resources are prepared and new fossils are found, the information will be forwarded to UCMP so that the fossil parks database can be kept current.

So the next time you plan to visit a national park, visit PaleoPortal first and find out what, if any, fossils have been found there!

Announcing UCMP's 2013 Fossil Treasures Calendar

Calendar spread

Twelve elegant examples of archival richness

Open any drawer in the UCMP collections and you will view an assortment of clues to the past. Each labeled object provides a "what, where, and when" and thus helps to portray slices of past biodiversity on different spatial and temporal scales. But these fossil treasures are, by themselves, only a small piece of the story and represent only a small part of the role of a natural history museum. It is when you add in the field notes, the correspondence of the collector, the newspaper clippings, the sketches and photos and maps that you see the bigger picture and you begin to fathom the breadth and depth of the collective memory of the UCMP.

And that is exactly what is portrayed in the 2013 UCMP Fossil Treasures Calendar! Each month features specimens, fossil localities, and/or personalities, along with the stories behind them, accompanied by photos, illustrations, and maps from the museum's archives. Thumbnails of each month's "big picture" can be seen below.

We hope you will consider purchasing a calendar and giving them as gifts to friends and family. After all, all proceeds support UCMP research, education, and outreach. Only $10! If you are interested, please contact Chris Mejia at or call 510-642-1821.

Big picture thumbnails

UCMP receives a grant to develop Understanding Global Change

The University of California Museum of Paleontology and the National Center for Science Education are undertaking a new project that ultimately will enhance 21st Century science literacy in the context of the causes and consequences of global change.

The need:

Although scientists are in agreement that significant changes (including climate change) are occurring on a global level, the public remains confused and often views statements of change with ill-founded skepticism and in some instances denial about the causes and implications of these changes.  K-16 teachers and the general public need a source of information that is accessible and scientifically valid, that describes and explains the nature and impact of global change, and that describes the processes by which scientists arrive at their consensus opinions.  Teachers need a “one-stop shop” for global change resources, much as they have a site for evolution education resources in Understanding Evolution, and for resources for the teaching of the nature of science in Understanding Science.  The web resource that we propose, Understanding Global Change, will meet these needs.

The impact:

We have chosen to focus on a resource for K-16 educators given that an individual’s basic science literacy and critical thinking begin to grow during formal and informal K-12 education and mature in higher education.  To this end, the immediate goals of the project are to develop a freely accessible and engaging web-based resource that (1) provides K-16 science educators with an improved understanding of the processes, causes and rates of global change through time and their resulting biotic impacts, (2) provides clarity on the strengths and limitations of scientific arguments about global change, i.e., how we know what we know and what we currently do not know, and (3) provides resources and strategies that encourage and enable K-16 teachers to incorporate the impact of global change into their teaching.  In turn, this will afford the opportunity for their students, and ultimately the general public, to better understand the science behind global change impacts, its relevance to society, the role of human agency in both cause and solution, and how science arrives at its current thinking.

We look forward to working with NCSE and an energetic Advisory Board to develop this much-needed resource and are grateful to the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation for providing funding for the endeavor.

The Arrival of the Fossils

My visit to the Regatta Facility

The UCMP houses one of the largest fossil collections associated with a university in the world, so it is no wonder that some of the fossils need to be stored off-campus at the UC Regatta facility, located nearby in Richmond. This large warehouse is home to multiple campus-wide museum collections, including a variety of enormous whale skulls, huge ichthyosaur skeletons, and cyclopean bones of mammoths and dinosaurs from the Museum of Paleontology.

The Regatta facility is also the current location of the fossils that have been recovered from the 4th bore Caldecott Tunnel project, and so I recently paid a visit. From the somewhat daunting pile of boxes, I selected several big, heavy ones labeled “vertebrates” and “invertebrates,” as well as some lighter, flat containers labeled “plants,” to take back to the UCMP in Berkeley. And the next day, I went to work.

Left: a newly-opened box of fossils from the Caldecott Tunnel 4th bore; Right: my workspace in the UCMP fossil preparation lab

Removing the lid of the first box revealed a pile of small bundles enveloped in toilet paper and neatly packed away in labeled plastic bags. After unwrapping a few of these small packages, I began to get an idea of the variety of fossils and rock samples that come from the Caldecott Tunnel. Most of the fossils I’ve seen so far are small, ranging in size from a tiny tooth several millimeters long, to some about as large as a fist. Many are broken or incomplete. But though they may not be visually impressive, they are rich in history. Not only will these fossils elucidate what the environment and climate of the East Bay was like in the middle Miocene Epoch, 9-16 million years ago, but they also provide clues about what happened to these organisms after they died. It is interesting, for example, that most of the invertebrate fossils are natural molds or ‘impressions’ in pieces of rock, while the vertebrates are preserved mainly as pieces of bones and teeth. Did they live in different habitats? Did they die in different places? How were these fossils preserved? These questions remain to be answered, and we’ll have to wait until further evidence comes in as I unpack and examine more material!

The plant fossils, however, are another story. Their preservation is quite good, and there are many leaves that can be seen very clearly, complete with anatomical details, on small slabs of rock. They are also especially interesting because they are particularly good indicators of the ancient climate of the San Francisco Bay Area, and provide a comparison of current and past geographic ranges of particular species. Watch for more on the Caldecott Tunnel fossils in future blog posts!

UCMP paleontologist Mark Goodwin examines a foot bone of an ancient camel

A drawer full of unpacked Caldecott Tunnel fossils

UCMP receives $401,833 to develop a program to increase understanding of evolutionary trees

UCMP,  in partnership with the Museum of the Earth, the University of Kansas Natural History Museum, and the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, has received a National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences: The Tree Room: Teaching and learning about evolutionary relationships

This three-year project will result in a freely accessible online resource for science educators and ISI professionals – The Tree Room. Building on scientific expertise, the learning research, and current project partner efforts, this resource will clarify what evolutionary trees are, how to read and interpret them, how they are built, how they inform research, and their applications relevant to society.  The project will clarify common misconceptions about trees, identify best practices for using trees in exhibits, and provide lessons and tools for teaching about trees.

The Tree Room will become part of the already highly successful Understanding Evolution website and will target K-16 teachers and ISI professionals but will ultimately serve students and the broader public by helping members of the target audience communicate more effectively about evolutionary trees as important scientific tools.

This project will have national impact on three levels by:

  • Increasing the number of K-16 teachers and informal science educators who are prepared to teach about trees and able to clarify student and visitor misconceptions.
  • Increasing the capacity of museums to develop effective exhibit and program components that integrate evolutionary trees by providing access to learning research and best practices gained through case study analysis.
  • Increasing public understanding of evolutionary trees.

Measurable outcomes of the project will include:

  • Improvements in teachers’ understanding of evolutionary trees.
  • Increases in teachers’ confidence in working with trees and associated scientific data, and improved skills in synthesizing and transforming that knowledge for the classroom.
  • Improvements in teachers’ skill and capacity for communicating concepts associated with biological trees in the framework of local, state and national science education standards.
  • Increases in teachers’ ability to explain tree depictions in the popular press or in textbooks that may otherwise result in student misconceptions.
  • Increases in ISI professionals’ use of trees in new exhibit designs.
  • Improved use of trees in ISI exhibits in ways that better reflect the results of the learning research and best practices as established through case studies of tree visualizations in other institutions.
  • Increases in ISI professionals’ confidence in using tree visualizations in museum interpretive activities and in discussing existing tree diagrams with visitors.

Teachers better prepared to incorporate trees into instruction and ISI professionals with a deeper understanding of the role of trees in exhibits will lead to a more scientifically literate public—one that appreciates the central role that evolutionary relationships play in a modern understanding of biology.

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.

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.