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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.

Marine vertebrate paleontology in Half Moon Bay

Paleontology along California's coastline

Paleontology along California's coastline. A) Fieldwork on the coast often involves climbing up ledges to get access to just one more meter of outcrop. B) A fossil tooth of the great white shark, Carcharodon carcharias. C) A freshly collected tympanic bulla of an extinct porpoise (Phocoenidae).

This week, we welcome guest blogger Robert Boessenecker. Bobby has been interested in paleontology since he was a kid. He grew up in the Bay Area; when he found Miocene shark teeth in the Santa Cruz Mountains, he was hooked.  He first got involved with the UCMP when he was a high school freshman — he visited the museum with his dad, to interview UCMP Assistant Director Mark Goodwin for a school project. Bobby is now getting a Masters' degree at Montana State University. He studies the taphonomy and preservation of marine vertebrate fossils in the Mio-Pliocene Purisima Formation of Central California.

After the completion of my first year of college, I was relaxing during my family's annual vacation at Lake Tahoe. While at the beach I received a phone call from my uncle; a surfing buddy of his had discovered a bunch of fossil bones somewhere near Half Moon Bay. I was excited, primarily because few discoveries of fossil vertebrates had been made along the San Mateo County coastline. I knew that much of the county's shoreline was made of the Purisima Formation, a rock unit I was familiar with from collecting fossils in the Santa Cruz area.

The Purisima Formation is late Miocene and Pliocene in age (7-2.5 Mya). In the Santa Cruz area, fossils of sharks, rays, skates, bony fish, sea birds, walruses, fur seals, dolphins, belugas, baleen whales, and sea cows had been discovered. With such a diverse fossil assemblage, I knew there was serious potential for discovery at this new spot in Half Moon Bay.

A day or two after we returned from Tahoe, my friend Tim Palladino and I followed directions to the locality, and sure enough, it was all Purisima Formation. When we arrived, the exact spot the surfer pointed out was up along a two foot wide ledge overhanging a thirty foot drop to the beach; neither of us were crazy enough to try climbing up there, and we decided to explore elsewhere. Shortly thereafter, we discovered several bonebeds with abundant bones and invertebrate shells preserved. Because the locality was on government-owned land, collecting without a permit was illegal.

After returning to Montana for my second year of college, I applied for (and eventually received) a permit, so that I could return to the locality and establish a collection. In summer 2005, I returned, and discovered a fossil skull of a baleen whale. The excavation took four days and half a dozen volunteers, but eventually the skull was excavated and wrapped in a plaster jacket for safe transport back to Montana. After the plaster jacket was removed that fall, I found that the skull was also encased in a concretion — the sandstone closer to the middle of the skull had been cemented with calcium carbonate, the same mineral in limestone. Needless to say, preparation took four and a half years, and was only finished in March 2010.

In 2006 I returned to the locality. We made two major finds that summer: the nearly complete skull of a fossil porpoise, and a complete lower jaw of the "'dwarf"' baleen whale Herpetocetus. In addition to these finds, by the end of 2006 I had collected several shark teeth (including those of great white sharks, basking sharks, angel sharks, a mako shark, and even a sawshark), fish bones, the humerus of an extinct flightless auk (Mancalla diegensis), bones and teeth of a walrus and a fur seal, and multiple ear bones of porpoises and several baleen whales (Herpetocetus, a right whale, and a rorqual whale). All of this fossil material is currently under curation for UCMP collections. UCMP has more fossil material from the Purisima Formation than any other repository, and now it is the recipient of an entirely new fossil assemblage from the Purisima. All in all, the collection includes several hundred specimens that represent 22 different species of marine vertebrates.

To learn more about Bobby's research, check out his blog, The Coastal Paleontologist.

Bobby Boessenecker in the field 1 Bobby Boessenecker in the field 2 Purisima Fossils Paleontology along California's coastline

Special exhibit: Fossil eggshell


This week, we've launched a new online special exhibit — Fossil eggshell: Fragments from the past. This is the best online source of information about fossil eggshell — you can't find this info anywhere else!  This special exhibit was created in collaboration with Laura E. Wilson, Karen Chin and Emily S. Bray, from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Frankie D. Jackson from Montana State University.

We can learn a lot from fossil eggshell. Using scanning electron microscopy, we can examine the details of the shell morphology and structure. This provides clues as to the identity of the egg-layer; different groups of animals have very different types of shells. Fossil eggshell can also tell us about the ecology and behavior of the egg-layers — and their babies.

This online special exhibit features a case study of the Willow Creek Anticline in the Two Medicine Formation, Montana, where paleontologist Jack Horner and colleagues found numerous dinosaur eggs and eggshell fragments. Read about the discovery of the fossils, and what Jack and his colleagues learned about the egg-layers — dinosaurs Maisasaura and Troodon — through their detailed analyses of the fossil eggshell.

Much of the material in the online exhibit comes from the Hirsch Eggshell Collection at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History. The collection was donated by eggshell enthusiast Karl Hirsch who made significant contributions to the field of fossil eggshell research. Learn about his legacy in the special exhibit section Karl Hirsch and the Hirsch Eggshell Collection.

The game of prehistoric life


Evolve or Perish is a new board game – not from the makers of Monopoly, but from ETE, the Evolution of the Terrestrial Ecosystems Program, at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. UCMP Faculty Curators Cindy Looy and Ivo Duijnstee designed the game in collaboration with illustrator Hannah Bonner. Hannah is well-known for her cartoon paleobooks When Bugs Were Big and When Fish Got Feet. The three enjoy collaborating -- Hannah created the logo for Cindy's lab's web site, and she is currently consulting with her on a regular basis for her next book.

Evolve or Perish is similar to Chutes and Ladders. It begins 635 million years ago, with the first multi-celled organisms. Each square on the board represents 10 million years. On the path to the present, numerous fates await you: slip on an early animal and go back one square; land on the Cambrian Explosion and jump ahead; land on the largest extinction event the world has ever known and go back nine spaces. The game is populated by cute animals (the first four-legged animal wears a party hat!) and strange-looking plants (like Lycopods from the coal swamps of the Carboniferous). All of the beautifully drawn creatures represent real plants and animals, known from the fossil record; a taxa list helps you learn your Oxynoticeras from your Omeisaurus. As you move your game piece from the past to the present, Earth's major milestones appear along the way – you'll pass meteors, millipedes, and the rise of giant mammals. The first player to make it to the present day wins the game – but experiences a gross revelation about how some of Earth's first inhabitants inhabit us humans, too.

The game can be downloaded for free here.

Cal Day at the UCMP

Cal Day at the UCMP 1Thanks for joining us on Cal Day! Here are some photos from a few of the UCMP's Cal Day events.

At Fun with Fossils, visitors used microscopes to look for fossils. They picked through matrix collected at the Bug Creek Anthills in Montana. People found reptile vertebrae, fish scales… and one little girl found a dinosaur tooth!

The courtyard of VLSB was buzzing as hundreds of visitors perused the Biodiversity Roadshow. This exhibit included specimens from many of the Berkeley Natural History Museums.

The faculty, staff, and students at the UCMP had a great time on Cal Day!  Join us again next year for more fun with fossils, more talks and tours, and more t-shirts!

T rex at Cal Day 1 T. Rex at Cal Day 2 Fossil Picking at Cal Day 1 Fossil Picking at Cal Day 2 Susumu Tomiya and the example fossils Fossil Picking at Cal Day 4 Fossil Picking at Cal Day 3 Fossil Picking at Cal Day 5 Emily Lindsey and Alan Shabel Emily Lindsey at Fun with Fossils Biodiversity Roadshow 6 Biodiversity Roadshow 2 Biodiversity Roadshow 1 Biodiversity Roadshow 5 Evolution questions 1 Evolution Questions 2 Evolution questions 3 Biodiversity Roadshow 4 Biodiversity Roadshow 7 Biodiversity Roadshow 3 Crowd at Biodiversity Roadshow Biodiversity Roadshow 1 Biodiversity Roadshow Biodiversity Roadshow 2 IMG_7011 Invertebrates at Cal Day UCMP grad students at Cal Day HERC table at Cal Day HERC table at Cal Day 3 HERC table at Cal Day 2

Visit the UCMP on Cal Day!

Cal Day 2009Join us at the UCMP on Cal Day, Saturday April 17!  Events run from 9am to 4pm; check the schedule for a full listing of activities. Here are just a few of the Cal Day events at the UCMP:

~ Take a tour of the collections with a museum scientist. The collections are open to the public just one day a year, so this is your chance! Tours are held throughout the day, but tickets are first-come, first- served, and they go fast — come early to pick up your free tickets in advance.

~ Visit the special mini-exhibit, If You Build It They Will Come: New Construction Means New Fossils. See the bones of a short-faced bear found while digging the Alameda Tube. Check out a ground sloth discovered while building the Oakland Coliseum. Look at mammoth teeth found right here in Berkeley while excavating for the Downtown Berkeley BART station. And learn what might be uncovered in upcoming construction projects, like the fourth bore of the Caldecott Tunnel and the construction of California's high-speed rail line. To learn more about fossils found during construction, see the recent blog post Fossils found fortuitously.

~ Search for fossils in the hands-on Fun with Fossils activity. You’ll find real fossilized fish scales and maybe even a dino tooth!

~ Enjoy a talk by a UCMP scientist.

  • Evolution's Big Bang: Explaining the Cambrian Explosion of Animals, with Charles Marshall, 11am.
  • The Sierra Nevada: Old or New? Higher or Lower? What Fossil Plants Tell Us, with Lenny Kouwenberg, 1pm.
  • The Life and Times of Triceratops, with Mark Goodwin, 2pm.

~  Think you've found a fossil? Bring it to the Biodiversity Road Show and expert paleontologists will help you identify it. Experts from botany, zoology, and entomology will be there too, so bring in any specimens you're curious about.

To get a taste of what's in store, check out this audio slide show, Cal Day at the UCMP, which shows highlights from Cal Day 2009.

Cal Day 2009 UCMP Tour UCMP T-shirts Glossotherium tibia Arctodus humerus


Thank you for joining us for Cal Day 2010! To look at some photos from the day, check out Cal Day at the UCMP.

X-ray analysis of fossil whale baleen

Modern baleen XRD map

Elemental map of a cross-sectional view of the modern minke whale baleen. Image: Mark Goodwin.

Two years ago I approached UCMP Assistant Director Mark Goodwin and asked if he had any room for some student help in his research. I had no previous experience in paleontology, just a passion for learning about dinosaurs and biology. Now, as a third-year graduate student in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, I work on a variety of projects with Mark and the UCMP. For my own research, I study the micro- and nano-scale features in fossil bone with electron microscopy. I have always enjoyed interdisciplinary work, and the opportunity to use cutting edge X-ray and electron microscopy techniques to uncover new knowledge about the preservation of fossilized structures is very exciting to me.

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which sits overlooking the UC Berkeley campus from atop the Berkeley hills, offers many amazing opportunities to conduct state-of-the-art science. In particular, the Advanced Light Source (ALS) offers a variety of techniques for analyzing material properties, for studying the structure of biological specimens or molecules, or for investigating chemical reactions in real time. All of these techniques use X-ray light, which is a higher-energy form of light than the visible light that our eyes can see.

UCMP Assistant Director Mark Goodwin has been using several techniques at the ALS to study a variety of fossil and modern samples. Most recently, Mark investigated the elemental composition and physical structures of a sample of 5.8 million-year-old fossil whale baleen and then compared it to a sample of modern minke whale baleen.

Baleen whales don’t use teeth to catch and chew their food; instead they use hair-like baleen to strain microscopic organisms from the water. The hair-like structures of baleen are actually small tubules composed of concentric, alternating layers of keratin and hydroxyapatite. Keratin is the same tough protein found in fingernails, and hydroxyapatite is the same mineral that makes bones strong. Just as fossilized bones are altered from their original state, in fossil baleen the keratin and hydroxyapatite can be replaced by other minerals.

That’s where the X-ray absorption techniques at the ALS come in. Because whale baleen has such a large protein component, like muscle or skin, it usually is not preserved during fossilization. The fossil whale baleen that Mark analyzed, with the help of ALS scientists Sirine Fakra and Matthew Marcus, is an incredibly rare sample. Two techniques were used to study the preservation of this remarkable fossil whale baleen, including (1) elemental analysis to spatially map where a variety of different elements are in the baleen and (2) X-ray Absorption Near Edge Structure (XANES) to discern the chemical structure of the elements present. In both cases, the data must be compared to the modern minke whale baleen, or the standard, to assess what has actually changed during fossilization.

An example elemental map of a cross-sectional view of the modern minke baleen can be seen in the figure. The colors each represent a different element present in the baleen and they highlight the concentric circular structure of the baleen tubules. The maps show us that the keratin protein rings in the fossil baleen have largely been replaced by mineral. The original hydroxyapatite rings are still there, too, although some elemental substitutions have occurred in the mineral structure.

From this data we now know the secret behind the preservation of this amazing, rare fossil baleen discovery! The keratin was replaced by mineral, which preserved the three-dimensional structure of the original whale baleen – the mineral prevented the tubules from flattening under pressure in the rocky fossil bed. Measuring the characteristics of the three-dimensional structure, like tubule diameter and thickness, Mark was able to determine that this fossil whale is evolutionarily related to the modern minke whale. This one piece of fossil baleen, therefore, has taught us two lessons: (1) how baleen fossilizes to preserve its original structure and (2) that this extinct whale is related to the modern minke whale.

CT scan of fossil baleen, courtesy of Mark Goodwin.

Liz Boatman Fossil baleen locality Modern baleen XRD map Minke Whale

Fossils found fortuitously

Whale Excavation INot all fossils are discovered by paleontologists combing the earth on special expeditions. Many fossils are found by accident — particularly during construction projects. Impressive fossils, like whales, mammoths, and sloths, have been found while digging foundations for buildings, leveling land for highways, and excavating subway tunnels. This spring, the UCMP blog will take you on a tour of Bay Area construction sites, past and present, to show you some of the fossils underfoot in the region.

This week, Dave Haasl, a former Museum Scientist at the UCMP, tells us about his work with PaleoResource Consultants, a consulting firm that performs what is known as mitigation paleontology. If fossils are found on public lands during construction, the law requires that they be preserved. The fossils need to be excavated quickly, so that construction can carry on. And, the fossils need to be excavated by trained paleontologists, so they are properly preserved for future scientific study. This is a job for mitigation paleontologists! As Dave explains, "we need to mitigate the impact [of construction] to scientifically important resources. This includes fossils, as well as archaeological specimens."

There are two parts to mitigation paleontology. First, the paleontologists do pre-construction field surveys. "We look at the stratigraphy of the area, and plot the potential fossil localities," says Dave. Then, when those areas are dug up, workers know to be on the lookout for fossils. The second part of paleo mitigation is monitoring, which occurs throughout a construction project. Construction workers may not recognize fossils when they come across them, so it's important to have a trained paleontologist on site. If fossils are found, the monitors halt construction and quickly excavate the fossils. They call in a network of paleontologists, and typically they are able to excavate the fossils within a few days.

Recently, two marine mammal skeletons, a whale and a dolphin, were found during the construction of a sea wall along the California coastline. Santa Cruz County is building a sea wall between Santa Cruz and Capitola, to protect the cliffs and buildings from large waves. However, the sea wall will block access to that section of the coastline, preventing any future paleontological exploration of the area. Paleontologists were asked to survey the area before the wall was built, to see if any fossils were present.

An amateur paleontologist had seen vertebrae protruding from the sandstone — these vertebrae belonged to a small whale that lived in the late Miocene, about 5 million years ago. PaleoResource Consultants excavated the specimen, wrapped it in plaster to protect it during transport, and brought it back to their offices in Auburn, California, where it is now being prepared.

A second skeleton, a dolphin, was found by Robert Boessenecker, a graduate student at Montana State University studying marine vertebrate fossils in California. The dolphin, now extinct, is also from the late Miocene, and is related to the Chinese river dolphin. "Marine mammals were much more diverse at that time," says Dave.

While Dave's career path as a paleo mitigation consultant may seem unusual, there is a real need for trained paleontologists in this field. "There is more paleo work in the West than paleontologists who can do it," he says. "Often, archaeologists do the work, because paleontologists are not available." And this work is important. As a result of big construction projects, fossil material is collected that otherwise would still be in the ground. These specimens are then used in scientific research. Says Dave, "This is our historic heritage. If it's destroyed or sealed off, we're losing something of potential scientific value. Yeah, we need roads, we need power plants. But we're going to try to preserve as much of our past as we can."

Learn more about fossils found during construction projects in upcoming blogs!

Whale Excavation I Whale Excavation II Whale Excavation III Whale Prep - edited

Fish in the UCMP

Salmonid FossilIt is pretty unusual to see fish in the UCMP. It’s not that we don’t have any fish specimens — we have over a million fossilized fish fragments. It’s just that none of our museum scientists focus on fish, and so the museum’s fish parts tend to stay in the cabinets. But this past summer, Ralph Stearley of Calvin College visited the UCMP, and he did a little fishing.

Ralph pulled some spectacular specimens from the murky depths of the cabinets. The two specimens shown here are exceptional — nearly all the bones are in place, and one of the specimens even has imprints of scales! It is really rare for fish to fossilize like this — most of the time, fish break apart into individual bones and tiny scales.

These two specimens are salmonids. They are related to salmon, char, and trout — their closest living relative is probably the Dolly Varden. They lived 15-10 million years ago, in the ancient lakes that back then dotted Western Nevada. They were collected by UCMP curator Howard Hutchison in 1975, in an area called Stewart Valley. This site contains fossilized vertebrate, insect, fish, and plant material — it is rare to find so much taxonomic diversity in one place. Hutchison and his colleagues really got a sense of the entire fauna that once inhabited the area.

Ralph was excited to find these salmonid specimens in our collection — he and his collaborator, Gerald Smith of the University of Michigan, study the biogeographic history of salmonid fish. These specimens provide evidence that salmonids once lived in Western Nevada. For Ralph and Gerald, these fish are definitely keepers.

Salmonid Fossil Salmonid Head Scales Fish fossil