This 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.
"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."
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 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.
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.
In 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!
Imagine you are driving down I-5, just north of Bakersfield, in California’s hot and dusty central valley. Except that it’s the Cretaceous Period, 80-65 million years ago, and the central valley is actually an inland sea.And instead of seeing cows standing by the side of the highway, you see mosasaurs swimming through the salty water.
Mosasaurs were marine reptiles that lived during the late Cretaceous, in oceans all over the world. They had fins on their long bodies, and sharp teeth in their long jaws. They ate fish, ammonites, and possibly even other mosasaurs. Lucky for us, mosasaurs are now exctinct — they died out with the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous.
This particular fossil was found in 1937 by a high school student named Allan Bennison.Just the previous year, Bennison found the first dinosaur fossil in California.He used to ride his bicycle from his home in the San Joaquin Valley to the Moreno formation, where this fossil was found, a distance of 35 miles.Bennison went on to study at Berkeley, where he earned a degree in paleontology in 1940.This species was named after him: Plotosaurus bennisoni.