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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

UPDATE!

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

Middle schoolers and marine biodiversity in Moorea

GK-12 students in MooreaScientists from institutions like the UCMP travel all around the world and interact with many local communities. Last year the Berkeley Natural History Museums launched a project called the GK-12 Moorea fellowship to foster collaboration between graduate students and local communities in Moorea, French Polynesia. The program sends one graduate student to Moorea, a small island about 10km from Tahiti, to teach interactive science lessons in public schools and do ecological research. As the current GK-12 Moorea fellow, I am living in French Polynesia, teaching in a local middle school, and continuing my research on the evolution of monogamy in mantis shrimps.
For the past five weeks, I have been teaching lessons about marine biodiversity in two special education classrooms at the middle school in Pao Pao, Moorea. We kicked off the biodiversity unit with a field trip to a local public beach, where the students collected many animals from the shallow, sandy lagoon. The kids had a great time wading in the water, looking under rocks, and using a huge “Slurp Pump” to suck up critters that live in burrows. For many of these students, the lagoon is their backyard and they have been swimming, boating, and fishing in it since they were old enough to walk. Yet, I soon realized that for most of them every crab that they saw was just a crab and every snail was just a snail. They didn’t notice the differences between different species at all!

The students now have spent several lessons learning how to identify species and measure biodiversity using the collection that we made at the public beach. To measure the biodiversity of the public beach, the students are counting the number of species of mollusks (snails, clams, and octopuses) and decapods crustaceans (crabs, shrimps, lobsters). Although the students had an intuitive knowledge about how to classify organisms into mollusks and crustaceans, they were very skeptical when I showed them the thirteen different crab species we caught — they repeatedly told me “Toutes sont les crabbes” (They are all crabs)! I finally decided to try an impromptu activity — the students drew pictures of several different species of crustaceans and listed ways in which they differed. In doing this, they convinced themselves that each species was a morphologically unique group of organisms. The funny thing is that scientists at UC Berkeley argue all the time about the definition of “species” and whether “species” really exist. Species are notoriously hard to define — as Darwin said in On the Origin of Species, “No one definition has satisfied all naturalists; yet every naturalist knows vaguely what he means when he? speaks of a species.”

I love doing research on a small tropical island. In addition to the staff at Gump Station, I also have made friends with several Mooreans who live near sites where I collect mantis shrimps. One of my favorite research sites, Motu Tiahura, is frequented by picnicking families. The children often ask to see my animals. It is great fun to see their eyes widen as they look at my mantis shrimps swimming around in a falcon tube. I often explain my research to their parents — I study the evolution of monogamy in mantis shrimps. Monogamy is rare in crustaceans, but is common in the clade of mantis shrimps that I study. One of these monogamous species, Lysiosquillina maculata, or “varo” in Tahitian, is an expensive and overfished culinary delicacy here in French Polynesia. People here are fascinated to learn that the “varo” can live together in monogamous pairs for decades! They also love to check out my SCUBA diving setup and hear about my research methods.

During the height of my fieldwork, I dive for 3 or more hours a day surveying and collecting smaller mantis shrimp species. The backreef of the Moorean lagoon is a great place to dive. It’s clear, shallow waters abound with colorful fish and large coral heads. Since arriving in Moorea, I have learned all of the common fish and coral species so that I can do environmental surveys in areas where I collect mantis shrimps. As a naturalist, I love being able to name all of the species in the waters around me. Here in French Polynesia, many locals who fish for a living feel the same way. However, as in most developed countries, the younger generations are often less connected with nature. As I work and teach here in Moorea, I hope to open the eyes of my young students to the amazing marine ecosystem that surrounds them.

Gump Station, Moorea Moorea Moorea GK-12 5 Moorea GK-12 6 Moorea GK-12 2 Moorea GK-12 3 Moorea GK-12 4 Moorea GK-12 1 Moorea GK-12 7 Moorea GK-12 8

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

Highlights from Understanding Evolution

Ensatina-slide-400_web

Map and photos: Tom Devitt

Ring species are often touted as examples of speciation in action — and the Ensatina salamander, which forms a ring around California's Central Valley, is a classic example. Biologists discovered this ring species back in the 1950s, and investigations of Ensatina continue today. Learn more about Ensatina in this research profile of biologist Tom Devitt, on the UCMP's Understanding Evolution website. Tom is a graduate student in Integrative Biology here at UC Berkeley. The profile follows him from the field to the lab, from studying the morphology to investigating the molecules. Tom even does some exciting experiments on Ensatina mating behavior — be sure to check out this research profile!

Creatures from the black lagoon

Lake Merritt

Lake Merritt, Oakland, California.

Very little was known about wetland ecology back in 1869, when Samuel Merritt dammed a former tidal slough and began developing its surrounding wetland as his "Jewel of Oakland." By restricting the flow of waters in and out of the newly created tidal lagoon, a.k.a. Lake Merritt, silt and algae were allowed to accumulate and within a few years the lake had become a bit of an environmental disaster. Nevertheless, part of it was designated by Teddy Roosevelt as our nation's first wildlife refuge, protecting more than 90 species of migrating waterfowl. Lake Merritt serves as a drainage basin for the regional flood control system, receiving urban runoff from a 4,650-acre watershed through 60 storm drain outfalls. Four creeks drain into this 145-acre lagoon from the east, while tidegates regulate flow to the south through a narrow channel that connects it with Oakland Inner Harbor and San Francisco Bay. The lagoon is also polluted by illegal dumping of substances such as paints, solvents, and oil, which are highly toxic to marine life. In addition to mechanical harvesting of its widgeon grass, 1,000 to 7,000 pounds of trash are removed from the lagoon every month. Merritt’s short-lived dream as a spectacular swimming hole in downtown Oakland is, in reality, more accurately described as a very large recreational sewer.

Despite all of its tarnish, the Jewel of Oakland has been a haven for some organisms that thrive on an abundant supply of bacteria and algae and tolerate the tidal, seasonal, and anthropogenic changes of this stressed environment. Among them are a few species of microscopic foraminifera (think of sand-sized shelled amoebas) that are being monitored by Ken Finger, Jere Lipps, and Dawn Peterson. Recent studies have shown that foraminifera might be useful environmental indicators of pollution. Lake Merritt presents an opportunity to study how they will respond to the remediation measures planned by the City of Oakland. Currently, only the shoreline of the lake supports living populations of foraminifera, while the deeper lake bottom is a dead zone of black mud stinking of methane. Why is that, you ask? Well, all of the algae, widgeon grass, bird droppings, and other organic waste that escapes harvest sinks to the bottom, and the process of their bacterial decomposition depletes the dissolved oxygen in the stagnant water just above. In contrast, wind-driven circulation keeps the surface waters and shallow margins circulating and aerated, enabling fish, invertebrates, plants, and foraminifera to survive.

But the foraminifera have a higher coincidence of malformed shells in Lake Merritt than in San Francisco Bay, which could be related to their stressed environment, where temperature, salinity, and oxygen levels change regularly. Studies elsewhere suggest that these micro-mutants result from high levels of contaminants, heavy metals, industrial pollution, and domestic sewage. In 2002, Oakland passed a bond measure that will clean up and improve the health of the lake by increasing tidal flow and installing aeration units. With these changes, will the shell deformities become less severe or more infrequent? Will living foraminifera begin to colonize the deeper parts of the lake? We hope to answer these and other intriguing questions as we continue to collect and analyze these minute “creatures from the black lagoon.”

Lake Merritt Dawn Peterson Ammonia tepida - normal Ammonia tepida - deformed Ammonia tepida

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

Evo in the news: Speciation in real time

The Central European blackcap (left) and Galapagos ground finch (right) are two bird species that have undergone speciation recently, while scientists observed.

The Central European blackcap (left) and Galapagos ground finch (right) are two bird species that have undergone speciation recently, while scientists observed.

Speciation isn't always slow — sometimes, we can see evidence of evolution over a very short period of time. This month's Evo in the news: Speciation in real time looks at two examples of speedy speciation. The Central European blackcap, a bird, could be on the verge of a speciation event — over the past 30 years, researchers have seen a split in the behavior and morphology of two groups of blackcaps. Speciation has occurred in another bird species over a similar time period: the Galapagos finches, long an example of speciation by natural selection, have done it again. Learn more about how speciation can happen right in front of scientists' eyes in Evo in the news: Speciation in real time, on the UCMP's Understanding Evolution website. This month's Evo in the News also features a video podcast, provided by the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent).

Click here to browse the Evo in the news archive!

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

Predicting the future of San Francisco Bay: Learning from history

Short Course 2010

Speakers at the University of California Museum of Paleontology's 2010 Short Course, Predicting the future of San Francisco Bay: Learning from history. From left to right: Andrew Cohen, Will Travis, Jere Lipps, and Doris Sloan. Not present: Robin Grossinger.

Hundreds of thousands of people cross San Francisco Bay each day. But as commuters zip through the BART tunnel or drive over the bridges, they probably don't think about what the Bay looked like in the past — or what it will look like in the future. On Saturday, February 6, over 150 people attended the UCMP's annual Short Course, Predicting the future of San Francisco Bay: Learning from history. Throughout the course's five talks, they saw a very different view of San Francisco Bay.

A theme that emerged from the course was that San Francisco Bay is constantly changing. Doris Sloan, Adjunct Professor in Earth and Planetary Science at Berkeley and Curatorial Associate at the UCMP, spoke about the geologic processes that shape the Bay. For example, sea levels have fluctuated dramatically throughout the Bay's history. In the past, sea levels were low enough to make the Bay a dry river valley — and were high enough to make San Francisco an island. UCMP Faculty Curator Jere Lipps talked about the Bay's geology, too. He emphasized tectonic processes that are happening in the present day — and he brought his earthquake bucket. (If you live in a tectonically active area, please see below for more info on earthquake buckets!) The next speaker, Robin Grossinger of the San Francisco Estuary Institute, showed that geologic processes aren't the only things that shape the bay. He compared fascinating old maps to recent aerial photos to show that humans are responsible for numerous changes to the shoreline over the past 200 years. Andrew Cohen, Director of the Center for Research on Aquatic Bioinvasions (CRAB), talked about the ecological history of the bay. It is important to know which organisms (and how many of them) lived in the Bay, as we make plans to restore it. And Will Travis, Executive Director of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), talked about strategies for adapting to changes in the Bay that will occur in the future. Throughout the short course, it became clear that that San Francisco Bay has been changing since it first formed — and it will continue to change. At this point, we know a lot about the Bay — and we can use this knowledge as we plan for the future.

To learn more about the speakers, look at the agenda for the Short Course. The PowerPoint presentations will soon be available. And in a few weeks, videos of the presentations will be available on UC Berkeley's YouTube channel, iTunes U, and webcast.berkeley.edu. Check back for the links!

** In the event of an earthquake, Jere won't share the contents of his bucket with you – you need to put together your own earthquake preparedness kit! The website 72hours.org has a list of things you should include in your bucket. In addition to the items on the list, Jere suggests including a few other things that might just save your life: a wind-up radio/flashlight, a small one-burner propane stove, pillows, and gloves and kneepads for crawling around on broken glass and debris. If Haiti's recent earthquake is any indication, it could be several days before emergency services are able to reach everyone; Jere recommends including a supply of food and water to last at least 7 days.

How many mammoths?

Jake Enk cuts off a piece of a mammoth toothA few weeks ago, the UCMP welcomed visitor Jake Enk, a graduate student from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Jake visited the UCMP to saw off chunks of fossil mammoth teeth. Yes, you read that right. He took a small saw, sterilized the blade with bleach, and sliced off a small piece of tooth. Even after tens of thousands of years, mammoth teeth still contain DNA. Jake will put a little piece of the tooth in a test tube, and use a series of chemicals to purify the mammoth DNA. He does this work at the McMaster Ancient DNA Centre. The DNA from the mammoths' teeth can tell us about mammoth population structure.

Here at the UCMP, Jake took samples from 35-40 mammoth teeth in our collections — including one of Lupé's teeth! The UCMP is just one stop on his museum tour — Jake visited the Illinois State Museum, the University of Nebraska State Museum, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. Over the course of his trip, Jake collected samples from a total of about 175 animals. The mammoth teeth were collected all over the country — from Florida to Washington, and many localities in between. And, the animals lived at different times, over a period of about 200,000 years. By looking at the genetic diversity of the mammoths, through space and time, Jake will learn about variation in the size of the mammoth breeding population. This information can then be used to help answer ecological questions about mammoths.

Jake Enk's visit to the UCMP was funded in part by the Welles Fund. To learn how you can support research at the UCMP, click here.

Cutting off a piece of mammoth tooth Examining mammoth tooth sample