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Posts tagged ‘North America’

UCMP short course: Predicting the future of San Francisco Bay

predicting_web1How will sea level rise and climate change affect San Francisco Bay in the coming years? To predict the future, we need to look at the past — history shows us that San Francisco Bay has undergone some major changes throughout its history. Learn more about the Bay at this year's UCMP Short Course, Predicting the future of San Francisco Bay: Learning from history. This all-day course will be on Saturday, February 6, at UC Berkeley. It features talks by five renowned Bay Area scientists, as well as a panel discussion, giving you the chance to ask questions and delve deeper into the Bay's history — and its future.

The speakers include Doris Sloan, Adjunct Professor of Earth and Planetary Science at UC Berkeley and author of the book Geology of the San Francisco Bay Region; UCMP Faculty Curator Jere Lipps; San Francisco Estuary Institute scientist Robin Grossinger; Andrew Cohen, Director of the Center for Research on Aquatic Bioinvasions; and Will Travis, Executive Director of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission. Learn more about the speakers and their talks here.

Registration information is available here. The cost is $30 for the general public, $25 for Friends of the UCMP and members of the co-sponsoring organizations, and $15 for students. Proceeds support graduate student research and outreach efforts at the museum. Teachers attending the course can receive a certification of professional development hours.

The UCMP hosts a short course for the general public every year; we've covered a variety of exciting topics over the past few years. Last year's UCMP short course, Darwin: the man, his science, and his legacy, was very popular, with over 300 attendees.

Join us for 2010's short course, Predicting the future of San Francisco Bay: Learning from history!

Fossils provide baseline for mammal diversity

Arctodus

Skull of a short-faced bear from northern California, an example of a species that went extinct after humans arrived in North America. Photo: Tony Barnosky

As more and more species go extinct, biologists wonder whether we are on the verge of the earth's sixth mass extinction.  A new study, by Marc Carrasco and Tony Barnosky of the UCMP and Russell Graham of Pennsylvania State University, uses the fossil record to examine mammal biodiversity in North America over the past 30 million years. Carrasco and his collaborators used data from two fossil databases, MioMap and Faunmap, to determine the baseline of mammal diversity before humans arrived in North America. Their results, published in the journal PLoS ONE, show that the arrival of humans 13 thousand years ago coincided with a 15 to 42% decline in mammal diversity. These data show that humans had a negative impact on mammals long before we factor in the effects of current industrialization and global climate change. Now that a pre-human baseline of North American mammal diversity has been established, we can compare current diversity to the continent's "normal" diversity level — an important comparison as we plan and evaluate conservation efforts in the future.

To learn more about Marc and Tony's study, read the paper on the journal PLoS ONE, the UC Berkeley News press release, and this article in the San Francisco Chronicle.

New dino described by UCMP alums

Field crew 2006

The field crew that excavated Tawa hallae in 2006: Kevin Padian, Sterling Nesbitt, Alan Turner, Nate Smith, Randy Irmis, Amy Balanoff, and Gabe Bever. Photo: Nathan Smith, Field Museum of Natural History

Last week, two University of California Museum of Paleontology alums, Sterling Nesbitt and Randall Irmis, described a new species of dinosaur in the journal Science. The new species, Tawa hallae, sheds light on early dinosaur evolution — and the importance of the UCMP's collections.

Tawa's bones were first found by hikers in Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, in 2004. Around that time, Sterling and Randy were doing fieldwork at the nearby Petrified Forest National Park in northern Arizona, excavating fossils from rock layers from the Late Triassic — the same rock formation where the new fossils were found. That fall, park paleontologist Alex Downs approached Sterling and Randy at a scientific meeting and asked them if they'd be interested in excavating and describing what appeared to be a novel species. At that time, Randy was a graduate student at Berkeley, and Sterling had finished his undergrad at Berkeley and begun graduate school at Columbia. They decided to collaborate with Alex to describe the specimens and made plans to start fieldwork during the summer of 2006.

"Three weeks before our first major expedition," says Sterling, "the provost at the American Museum of Natural History called and asked if I'd like to be accompanied by an NSF-funded IMAX movie crew."  They wanted to film the excavation of the fossils for a movie, Dinosaurs Alive!. Sterling was a little worried that the filming would interfere with his fieldwork, but he agreed. The film crew followed Sterling, Randy, and the rest of the team for a week and a half. Sterling needn't have worried about having enough time to do his research — there was plenty of down time. "IMAX film is expensive," he says, and the film crew spent a lot of time setting up each shot. During some of this down time, Sterling was excavating the area where the hikers had found the fossils. "That's when I hit the ankle bone of the articulated leg of what became the holotype."

Other early dinosaur fossils are not as complete or as well preserved as those of Tawa hallae. Sterling, Randy, and the team found two nearly complete skeletons, as well as bones from several other individuals. Some of the bones are so well preserved that you can see very fine details, like the places where the muscles once attached. The neck vertebrae and the bones of the braincase have small depressions with raised rims — suggesting that there were air sacs adjacent to these bones. The air sacs filled up the depressions. Modern birds have air sacs attached to their bones, which they use for respiration. As Sterling and Randy write in their paper (co-authored by Nate Smith, Alan Turner, Alex Downs, and Mark Norell), we can't know if Tawa's air sacs served a similar function. However, we do know that Tawa is the earliest dinosaur with a pneumatic skeleton.

Tawa is particularly important because it fills a gap between early carnivorous dinosaurs, found in South America (where dinosaurs are thought to have originated), and later carnivorous dinosaurs found throughout the world. Randy, Sterling, Nate, and Alan figured out where Tawa fit by comparing it to other specimens, many of which were in the UCMP's collection. "The UCMP collection was instrumental in helping us understand what was at Ghost Ranch," says Randy. Sterling also points out the importance of the museum's collections, both in this study and in his paleontological education. "I came to Berkeley for the paleo," he says. As an undergrad, "I was in the collections a couple times a week, learning anatomy, learning what the fossil record is really like."

"This project really had its genesis when we were all graduate students," says Randy. "This study speaks to what a fantastic program we have at Berkeley, that we can have such fantastic research coming out of a graduate student-led project."

Randy is now an Assistant Professor at the University of Utah, and Sterling is a post-doc at the University of Texas Austin. Both intend to continue working at Ghost Ranch — "I plan to go back for many years to come," says Randy. "It's an amazing site." And, they plan to continue working in the UCMP collections – they'll be back in January. Check the UCMP blog for an update!

Sterling and Randy are currently collaborating with UCMP graduate student Sarah Werning, Kevin Padian, Nate Smith, and Alan Turner, to examine the growth and bone histology of early dinosaurs (including Tawa) and their relatives from Ghost Ranch. Stay tuned for an upcoming blog about dinosaur bone histology in the New Year.

Sterling and Randy's work was funded by a National Geographic grant to UCMP Faculty Curator Kevin Padian and by grants from Integrative Biology, UCMP’s Welles Fund, and the UCMP Graduate Student Research Award. Learn how you can support graduate student research at the UCMP.

There has been some great news coverage about Tawa hallae. To learn more, check the National Science Foundation's Special Report: Tawa hallae – it includes an audio slide show, a press conference, and lots of photos. There is an interview with Sterling in this Science magazine podcast, and an interview with Randy in this blog from the Utah Museum of Natural History. Also check out this article from the San Francisco Chronicle.

Nesbitt and Irmis, excavating at the Hayden Quarry Ghost Ranch Carrying Tawa Stocker and Nesbitt, excavating at the Hayden Quarry Ghost Ranch research Smith and Nesbitt Field crew 2006 Field Crew 2008 Tawa jaws Tawa lower jaw Tawa hand Tawa fibulae Tawa reconstruction Tawa skeleton

Paleo Video: A modern day dinosaur extinction

During the Cretaceous, dome-headed pachycephalosaurs roamed through what is now the Hell Creek Formation, covering parts of Montana, Wyoming, and North and South Dakota. But UCMP Curator Mark Goodwin and Museum of the Rockies Curator Jack Horner argue that there were fewer pachycephalosaur species than we thought. Mark and Jack suggest that two species, Dracorex hogwartsia and Stygimoloch spinifer, are actually juveniles and teenagers of the species Pachycephalosaurus wyomingensis. Learn about this modern day dinosaur extinction — read Mark and Jack's paper, published this week in the open access journal PLoS ONE, read the UC Berkeley News press release on the study, and watch this video!

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.

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.

Lupé's story: A mammoth's journey from the ground to a museum

Lupe DigIn 2005, Roger Castillo found the fossilized bones of a juvenile mammoth in the Guadalupe River near San Jose. Roger was walking his dog along the river, which he did frequently as a volunteer for the Guadalupe-Coyote Resource Conservation District, when he saw the tusks of the mammoth's skull poking out of the soil along the riverbank. At the time he wasn't exactly sure what he was looking at but recognized their importance and contacted the UCMP. The fossilized mammoth has been named Lupé, after the Guadalupe River. The San Jose Children's Discovery Museum (CDM) will open a new exhibit in 2011 about Lupé's discovery. The exhibit will focus on how Lupé lived in the past and how scientists have pieced together evidence to understand her life.

I am a graduate student in the Department of Integrative Biology at UC Berkeley, and I have been working with the UCMP and CDM on the mammoth exhibit since February. At Berkeley, I study mammals from the past, their evolution, how they lived and their relationship with the environment. I got involved in this project because of my research interests. I mostly help the CDM team answer questions about mammoths and other Pleistocene mammals, as well as show them how paleontologists figure out the past from fossils and rocks. The CDM team visited the UCMP twice this spring to look at the collections and get a feel for what a typical day is like as a paleontologist. We also went on a field trip to the coast to look at fossils and learn about the local geology. I really enjoy sharing my experiences with the CDM team and love how excited everyone is to learn more about mammoths and paleontology.

But it's not just me teaching the CDM team! I have been learning quite a bit about how a children's museum designs exhibits for all ages. I attend CDM's brainstorming meetings and have been astonished by how creative a process it is. How do you design an exhibit that holds the attention of a 4 year old and her 12 year old sibling!? It's not easy, but with a lot of brainstorming and testing, the team comes up with fantastic exhibits.

Luckily, the project team also includes a group of researchers from UC Santa Cruz, led by Maureen Callanan. They focus on understanding how children learn science. One question the team has had during development of the exhibit is when do children understand the concept of time? Do they know that dinosaurs lived before mammoths? The UC Santa Cruz team is currently running experiments at the CDM to better understand what children will be able to learn from the exhibit. Their research has really helped guide the exhibit development.

I am very excited to be part of such a dynamic team of researchers and professionals. As we all learn from each other, great ideas unfold and the exhibit design moves forward. Over the next few months, I'll be updating you on our progress as we design and construct the mammoth exhibit. And I'll let you know when the exhibit opens in 2011!

UPDATE: Read Part 2 of Lupé's story!

Lupe Dig Lupe Lupe Map Lupe Locality

One more Moropus

Carolyn RoundsThis summer, Carolyn Rounds visited the UCMP to study our Moropus fossils. Carolyn is a grad student in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. And Moropus is an extinct horse-like creature, part of a taxonomic group called chalicotheres.

Chalicotheres are pretty unique — they had claws instead of hooves. They didn’t use their claws to rip apart prey; they were herbivores, and they probably used their claws to pull vegetation down from trees. Chalicotheres lived in North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa; they are all now extinct. Chalicotheres are part of a larger group, the perissodactyls, or odd-toed ungulates. Living perissodactyls include horses, zebras, tapirs, and rhinos.

For her Masters degree, Carolyn is describing a species of Moropus that has not been described before — a new species. Here at the UCMP, she’s looking at fossils from the Flint Hill formation in South Dakota. The differences between Carolyn’s Moropus and the species that have already been described are subtle. The facets of the ankle bones — where the bones meet each other — have a slightly different shape than other species. The vertebrae of this species are also a bit different. Carolyn is taking careful notes and making beautiful drawings of the UCMP fossils, so she can compare them to fossils she’s examining at other museums. This summer, she’s making a grand tour of natural history museums. So far, she’s visited The American Museum of Natural History in New York City, the University of Nebraska State Museum, and the South Dakota School of Mines. Next week, she’ll travel to the Los Angeles County Museum.

Moropus elatus Moropus ankle bone Moropus vertebra