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Flat Stanley visits the UCMP

Stanley and Mammoth SkullThe UCMP has hosted several Flat Stanleys this year, as part of the Year of Science 2009. Flat Stanley is a fictional character from a children’s book, written by Jeff Brown in 1964. In the original story, Stanley is a little boy who is flattened when a bulletin board above his bed falls on top of him. He finds that, in his new flattened state, he is able to have many great adventures by being mailed from place to place in an envelope. Inspired by this story, the Flat Stanley project began as a classroom exercise in an elementary school in Canada and has now grown into a communication network among primary school students around the world. In a variation of this idea, students in Piedmont, California made paper Flat Stanleys and sent them to Berkeley to learn about scientific research on campus. Three of these Stanleys came to visit the UCMP.

The first Stanley to visit in 2009 was hosted by Kaitlin Maguire, a member of the Barnosky lab. Kaitlin showed Stanley the skull of a Columbian mammoth from the Pleistocene of California, and took Stanley’s photo next to one of the mammoth’s teeth. You can check out Stanley’s full adventure with Kaitlin and the mammoth here.

The next Stanley was hosted by Jann Vendetti, a member of the Hickman Lab. Jann took Stanley with her to one of the classes taught in Integrative Biology, called Principles in Paleontology. Stanley got to see a lot of invertebrate fossils, and learned how paleontologists measure the size and shape of animals in the fossil record. See Stanley’s full adventure with Jann here .

The last Stanley to visit the UCMP was hosted by Susumu Tomiya, who is also a member of the Barnosky lab. Susumu introduced Stanley to Flat Darwin, whose real-life counterpart would have celebrated his 200th birthday this year! Flat Darwin took Stanley on a grand tour of the UCMP collections, with a special emphasis on the fossil mammals of South America. One of the highlights was the glyptodont, a giant, extinct relative of the armadillo. You can read about Stanley’s visit with Susumu, Flat Darwin, and the mammals of South America here.

This isn’t the first time Flat Stanley has visited the UCMP — to read about his previous adventures, click here.

Stanley and Mammoth Tooth Stanley and Shells Stanley and Invertebrates Stanley and Darwin Stanley, Darwin, Glyptodont and Armadillo Stanley and Mammoth Skull

Dinosaurs decoded

Image courtesy of the National Geographic Channel

Image courtesy of the National Geographic Channel

UCMP Assistant Director Mark Goodwin's research on Triceratops is featured on National Geographic Channel's video of the week. Triceratops are named for the three horns that protrude from the skull — and as Mark and his colleague Jack Horner have discovered, those three horns tell a fascinating story about the growth and development, and potentially the behavior, of these dinosaurs.  The National Geographic video is an excerpt from an hour-long television program, Dinosaurs Decoded. Be sure to catch it on the National Geographic Channel on Sunday, October 11 at 9pm, and on Tuesday, October 13 at 9pm.  And check out a preview of the video, along with photos and fun facts, here.

The Bancroft Library's Darwin exhibit

Darwin ExhibitUCMP and the other Berkeley Natural History Museums are well represented on a new exhibit in the Bancroft Library — Darwin and the Evolution of a Theory. We had a special tour of the exhibit last week thanks to UCMP Faculty Curator – and exhibit co-curator – Kevin Padian.

The exhibit is stunning. There are rare books and manuscripts from the Bancroft Library and other campus collections, as well as numerous specimens, including a South American ground sloth fossil from the UCMP, Galapagos tortoise shells and finches from the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, plant specimens from the Jepson Herbaria… the list goes on. Check out the exhibit's catalog to see more of the specimens included in the exhibit.

Kevin explained that only Berkeley could put on an exhibit like this. Only Berkeley has libraries and natural history museums with the rich collection of books, manuscripts, and specimens required to put on an exhibit of this depth. If you're in the Bay Area, make the trip to the Bancroft Library — the exhibit is open Monday through Friday from 10am – 4pm, and will be on view until December 23, 2009.

Want to learn more about Darwin? Kevin Padian will be part of a panel discussion, "Darwin's Enduring Legacy," on Wednesday, November 4 at 7pm. Look here for more information.

Darwin Exhibit Kevin Padian Finches Visitors at the Darwin Exhibit Darwin Exhibit tour Jere Lipps signs the guestbook Darwin and Twain Tortoise shell Kevin Padian Finches Plant material Kevin Padian gives the tour Darwin and the Evolution of a Theory

Human evolution in the headlines

scienceardicoverThis week's big paleo story centers on Ardipithecus ramidus, a species of hominid that lived in the woodlands of Ethiopia, 4.4 million years ago. UCMP Faculty Curator and Human Evolution Research Center (HERC) director Tim White is co-director of the Middle Awash Project, the team of researchers that excavated and studied the fossils. The team includes UCMP Faculty Curator and HERC Associate Faculty member Leslea Hlusko.  Find out more about the discovery:

  • Science magazine has 11 papers about A. ramidus in the October 2 issue, as well as a number of online extras.
  • Discovering Ardi is the online companion to the Discovery Channel's upcoming program, and has wonderful photos, reconstructions and videos of the fossils and the people who work with them, including videos featuring Tim White.
  • Carl Zimmer summarizes the most interesting findings on his blog.


Tim and his colleagues found a lot of fossil material — over 125 pieces from the skeleton of a single individual (nicknamed Ardi), as well as specimens from nearly three dozen other individuals. The teeth provide clues about the species' social structure, and the pelvis, hand, and foot bones indicate how it may have walked and climbed.

If you're on the Berkeley campus, be sure to check out HERC's exhibit on human evolution, on the second floor of the Valley Life Sciences Building at UC Berkeley. There is a new section of the exhibit about Ardipithecus ramidus.

Paleo Video: Kaitlin Maguire at the John Day Fossil Beds

Watch this video and join UCMP graduate student Kaitlin Maguire on a field trip to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument! After visiting the park last spring, Kaitlin decided it's the perfect place to do her dissertation research.

"When you do a field project for paleontology, especially if you're looking for fossils, you never know what you're going to find — you never know if there's going to be enough data," says Kaitlin. But paleontologists from the UCMP and elsewhere have been studying the John Day Fossil Beds since the early 1900s. "There's a wealth of information to build on," she says. "I'm not just walking into the unknown."

A few fun facts about the John Day Fossil Beds:

  • The fossil beds, in eastern Oregon, were named for the John Day River, which runs through the area. The river got its name because of an incident that occurred at the river's mouth in 1812. A fur trapper named John Day was robbed by Native Americans — he was relieved of all of his belongings, including his clothes. Thereafter, the river was referred to as the John Day River.
  • Over 35,000 fossil specimens have been excavated from the John Day Fossil Beds. Many of those specimens were collected by UCMP paleontologists; the UCMP collections include thousands of fossils from John Day.
  • The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument has a paleontologist on staff, as do several other National Parks. Learn more about paleontology at the John Day on the Monument's website.

A summer studying snails in the Caribbean

Cpica_webI am a graduate student with the UCMP and the Department of Integrative Biology at Berkeley, and I study the biogeography, conservation biology, and microevolution of molluscs. From July through August of 2009, I traveled to nine islands in the Eastern Caribbean looking for Cittarium pica, a large, marine gastropod, or snail. This species has many common names, including West Indian Topshell, burgao, burgos, cingua, magpie shell, wilke, and “whelk”, which is why knowing the scientific name is so important!

Cittarium pica is the largest snail that lives along rocky coasts, reaching a maximum width of 13.6 cm! Since at least the Pliocene, about 5.2 million years ago, the species has lived in the West Indies and along the Caribbean coasts of South and Central Americas. Humans have fished this snail since they first arrived in the region, eating the meat and using the shell for both jewelry and as tools.

Conducting research on the islands of the Caribbean and Northwestern Atlantic is a breathtaking experience, both because of the spectacular views and because it’s hard work! When I found locations on the islands with C. pica populations, I recorded the size and location of individuals within the intertidal zone. I will use this information to assess the fishing pressure on island populations, determine the habitat preferences of the species, and map the distribution of habitat during the Pleistocene. This map can then be used to predict the future distribution of C. pica habitat as the sea level rises due to global warming. During the Pleistocene, sea level fluctuated from ~130m below to ~6m above present day sea level!

At each site, I also collected tissue samples from 25-30 snails (taking them does not fatally harm the animals) to determine the genetic variation of the species on both local and regional scales. These data will provide information on the patterns of larval dispersal within the region and help to identify populations that are at high-risk of local extinction (due to low genetic diversity).

During six weeks of fieldwork, I collected 385 tissue samples from 13 different field sites, conducted ten population surveys, recorded habitat and size information for 2,542 individuals, and collected shells from each site. Whew! I had a busy six weeks! While exploring the rocky coastlines, I also found C. pica fossils in Barbados and several locations with fossil corals. I didn't have a permit to collect fossils, so I'll have to return to those sites in the future.

This trip was the third of four field seasons for my dissertation research. To read more about my summer adventures, please check my research blog.

My 2009 fieldwork was funded by the American Museum of Natural History, Unitas Malacologica, and the Reshetko Family Scholarship Fund.

Cittarium pica Anguilla Barbados C. pica fossil Map of the Caribbean C. pica shell tools

T. rex gets a manicure

Gluing on the clawA few months ago, the UCMP’s Tyrannosaurus rex broke a nail. The right claw mysteriously went missing. We needed to replace it, but obviously the standard-issue drugstore press-on nail just wouldn’t do. We had to re-construct a new right claw by making a copy of the intact left claw.

Danny Anduza, a UCMP volunteer, carried out the claw restoration. First, he mixed up a rubbery substance and painted it over the T. rex’s left claw, to make a mold. Once the rubber hardened, he carefully sliced it and removed it from the claw. Next, Danny used the mold to make a new claw. He mixed up some resin and poured it into the rubber mold. Once the resin had set, Danny painted the new claw with brown paint — the same paint that was used to paint the rest of the T. rex in 1995. Danny attached the new claw to the finger bone using a special kind of hot glue, formulated to bond plastic to plastic.

Now that its claw has been repaired, the T. rex can resume hunting prey after we’ve all gone home for the night. Or sneaking into the classrooms and scratching the chalkboards.

Casting the left claw Left claw New right claw T. rex gets a manicure Gluing close up T. rex claw repair Finishing touches New right claw Gluing on the claw

Super-sized sinuses

David Dufeau

David Dufeau, a graduate student from Ohio University, spent a few days at the UCMP this July, studying the development and evolution of the middle-ear sinuses in archosaurs — birds and crocodilians. He explains that the sinuses in these animals were so greatly expanded that they completely surrounded the braincase. By understanding these super-sized sinuses in the archosaurs, David hopes to infer something about the nature of auditory receptivity. Maybe the sinuses expanded as adaptations for hearing in terrestrial and aquatic habitats. David can look at the sinuses in fossilized skulls, but he has no way of knowing whether these animals suffered from middle ear infections or terrible sinus headaches.

David's visit was supported by the Welles Fund, an endowment that supports paleontological research at the UCMP. Click here to learn how you can support research at the UCMP.

David Dufeau and Phytosaur Protosuchus


RudistNot to be rude, but what in the world is a rudist? Well, rudists are invertebrates, and they lived in the world’s oceans during the late Jurassic and the Cretaceous, about 150-65 million years ago; they are now extinct. They are bivalves — the name means “two shells.” Today’s familiar bivalves, clams and mussels, have two shells that are more or less symmetrical. But rudists were a bit unusual: their two shells were very different from each other. One shell was either conical or coiled, and it was attached to the ocean floor (or neighboring rudists). The other shell sat on top, like a little hat. The organism lived inside. They were probably filter feeders, feeding on plankton in the water, like many other bivalves today.

Rudists would grow on top of one another and form rudist reefs. They were the major reef-building organisms of their time — corals weren’t so abundant back then. Reefs are really important habitats for other marine organisms, like fish and crustaceans. So rudists played an important role in the ancient ocean.

So if rudists were so ecologically important, how did they get stuck with such an odd name? Lamarck dubbed them rudists in 1819, but it’s a little unclear what he meant. The Latin word rudis means rude, raw, or uncultivated. The Latin word rudus means rubble, or broken stone — specifically, the stones that made up Roman roads. Rudists do seem sort of coarse and unrefined, and they do look an awful lot like stones. But who knows what Lamarck was thinking.

This fossil rudist was found in Chiapas, Mexico. Learn more about rudists on the UCMP’s rudist page.

Pterosaur landing made quite an impression

Pterosaur ReconstructionPterosaurs, flying reptiles that lived from the Late Triassic until the end of the Cretaceous Period, are known from their fossilized skeletons and their footprints, which show that at least some of the pterodactyloid pterosaurs walked on all four limbs. Now, one rare set of footprints tells us how these pterosaurs landed on the ground. Kevin Padian, curator at the UCMP and professor of Integrative Biology at UC Berkeley, just published a paper on a pterosaur landing trackway, which his co-authors discovered at a Late Jurassic site called “Pterosaur Beach” in southwestern France.

The tracks show that the pterosaur landed feet-first and then dragged its claws before walking off using all four limbs. This is the first set of tracks that show a pterosaur landing. There are still no tracks that show the takeoff.

The way that the pterosaur landed suggests quite strongly that it flapped its wings in order to stall before landing. This would fit with our understanding that pterosaurs were very strong, active fliers. To learn more, read the paper by Kevin and his colleagues in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. There are some great articles about the discovery in the following publications:

San Francisco Chronicle

The Independent


Pterosaur Reconstruction Figure 1 Figure 2 Figure 3