Just some months ago on a Saturday in July, I had the pleasure of snorkeling above the only coral reefs in the continental Unites States. These reefs in southern Florida still harbor many species of corals, fish, and other animals including crustaceans such as crabs, shrimps, and lobsters. These decapods are difficult to spot while snorkeling, but that does not mean they are not there. Their usually small size in this landscape of incredibly variable topography ensure they are able to hide effectively from predators. As for many other animals, coral reefs are a hotspot for decapod biodiversity. This was by no means different in the distant past. The rapid diversification of crabs and squat lobsters in sponge and shallow-water coral reefs during Late Jurassic is one of the best examples. When many reefs vanished in the earliest Cretaceous so did many of these crustaceans, highlighting the need to protect corals and, in doing so, also the associated, often cryptic animals.
One example of these cryptic animals are crabs from the Cryptochiridae family. Today, over 50 species are known of these tiny animals that have a carapace of less than a centimeter long. They do not hide in the rubble or between coral branches, but they create their own homes within the corals. Their home is either a true gall or a tunnel that is either circular/oval or crescentic in cross-section. Despite their high biodiversity, no convincing cryptochirid fossils were known until very recently.
The modern cryptochirid crab Troglocarcinus corallicola sitting snugly in a crescentic home in the coral Manicina areolata. Scale bar width: 50 mm for a, 5.0 mm for b. Source: Klompmaker, Portell & Van der Meij, 2016, Scientific Reports
Earlier this year, an open access article together with Roger Portell and Sancia van der Meij was published showing superbly preserved crescentic-shaped holes in Plio- and Pleistocene corals from Florida and Cuba. No animals other than cryptochirids create such holes so the culprit of this trace fossil was easy to identify. Unfortunately, no crabs were found inside the holes because these relatively soft and tiny crabs do not preserve well. Such crescentic holes should be present in more fossil corals all over the world. Why? Cryptic crabs that make such holes are found in corals in nearly all (sub)tropical regions of the world today. Additional evidence would help tremendously in constraining the antiquity of this family and with getting a better sense about their past biodiversity. So check out your fossil corals at home or in a museum nearby! Some places in the world expose fossil coral reefs as a good third alternative.
Pleistocene corals from Florida: Solenastrea bournoni (a, b) and Solenastrea hyades (c˗e) with close-ups of crescentic cryptochirid holes. Photo d shows the holotype of the trace fossil named after this particular shape: Galacticus duerri. The genus name is derived from Battlestar Galactica because of the similar cross-sectional shape of this battleship to these crescentic holes. Scale bar width = 50 mm for complete corals; 10 mm for close-ups. Source: Klompmaker, Portell & Van der Meij, 2016, Scientific Reports
That's exactly what I did in the summer of 2014, but for different reasons. I was lucky to receive funds from the Paleontological Society (Arthur James Boucot Research Grant) and a COCARDE Workshop Grant (European Science Foundation) to travel to Denmark to a very special fossil coral reef in the famous Faxe Quarry. This quarry is accessible to everybody and it certainly is a great place to visit when you are in Denmark as is the Geomuseum Faxe right next to it! My Danish colleagues Bodil Lauridsen and Sten Jakobsen helped to find the right places for collecting. The exposed coral and bryozoan mounds were living at 200-400 m depth in dim light conditions in the earliest Cenozoic (~63 million years ago). Such deep-water coral reefs can still be found all over the world up to depths of 1000+ meters by the way.
The Faxe Quarry at dusk after a long field day.
Author (right) with colleague Sten Jakobsen (left)
This complex reef at Faxe also contains decapods, primarily crabs and squat lobsters. After more than a century of collecting, as many as 25 species are known. That’s a lot right? However, well-sampled, shallow-water fossil coral reefs from elsewhere in Europe contain even more decapods. The Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event that wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs, ammonites, and severely affected many other groups has apparently nothing to do with the lower decapod diversity at Faxe. Our analyses show that decapod diversity is not affected by this event. Instead, less food and perhaps fewer hiding places have contributed to this lower diversity. A comparatively low decapod diversity is also seen in today’s deep-water coral reefs.
These critters may differ also in body and eye size compared to their shallow-water friends in corals reefs. The crabs at Faxe tend to be larger for half of the analyses, whereas other results show no difference. Some ideas about the reasons include a lower number of predators, a delayed maturity, and an increased life span of these crustaceans in deeper, colder waters. Quite spectacular evidence was found when we compared the eye socket size (true eyes are not preserved) for crabs of the same size and genus from Faxe to those from a shallow-water reef. While initial results did not seem to show much, a closer look at the data and additional measurements did show a distinct difference. The eye sockets of the crabs at Faxe are larger than those from a shallow-water reef! Thus, these crabs evolved larger eyes to see better in the dim light conditions in Faxe ~63 million years ago.
Leftover rocks from a number of days of field work at one of the sites in the Faxe Quarry.
Some crabs can be readily seen in the wall of the quarry. Here an example of a partially exposed carapace of Dromiopsis rugosus.
Carapaces of crabs and some squat lobsters (c, d) from the Faxe Quarry in Denmark and some crabs from Spain (g, h). a. Dromiopsis rugosus; b, Dromiopsis elegans; c, Protomunida munidoides; d, Galathea strigifera; e & f, Caloxanthus ornatus; g & h, Caloxanthus paraornatus. The eye socket height of many specimens of the two species of Caloxanthus was compared. Scale bar width: 5.0 mm for a & b; 2.0 mm for rest. Source: Klompmaker, Jakobsen & Lauridsen, 2016, BMC Evolutionary Biology (open access)
The incredible biodiversity of fossil decapod crustaceans with ~3500 known species, many of them known from reefs, still results in the description of tens of new taxa each year by professionals and avocational paleontologists, often during collaborative efforts. With such data becoming more and more available, studies on diversity and paleoecology have become more common in recent years. The collection of the UCMP also does hold many, yet to be studied fossil decapods. Research on this exciting group of crustaceans continues!
Visiting Egyptian scholar Marwa W. Ibraheem sharing some info about fossil insects with visitors. Photo credit Lucy Chang. Museum scientist Diane Erwin and undergraduate Hiep Nguyen pose for the camera. Photo credit Jun Ying Lim. Bottom right graduate student Sara ElShafie answers questions at the “Ask a Climate Change Scientist” booth in the couryard. Photo Credit Helina Chin.
The 2016 Cal Day, held on April 16, 2016, was my first time experiencing Cal Day and I was also the one planning it. Cue scary music! Thanks to the UCMP community for pitching in their time and efforts, it went off without a hitch and was fun experience all around.
As a newer member of the UCMP community, I only knew about CalDay through photos and the well-documented newsletter postings by my predecessor Dave Smith. Annually on Calday, the campus opens up to the public and shares all the research and project activities being done by each department. The UCMP offered up many activities for UC Berkeley alumni, students and the Bay Area community gathered to enjoy a fun day of exploration and learning at the campus open house.
The science on display in the Valley Life Sciences Building is one of the biggest draws to visitors on campus. The unifying theme among the Berkeley Natural History Museums this year was “Our Changing Planet,” a theme that touches upon the concept of global climate change. Many wonder what studying fossils tells us about global climate change. Common questions include can unearthed fossils from rocks beneath our feet really tell us anything about why rain and snow is still showing up in present day April? The answer is yes! And was the focal point of many of the activities and presentations put on by UCMP staff and students - how fossils and deep time inform the future.
At the UCMP on Cal Day, we offer a limited number of exclusive tours of our collections to visitors who arrive early enough to get the coveted tour tickets. Because of the nature of collections, only small groups can be taken through the stacks. The tours were lead by the museum scientists, and they discussed everything from giant ammonites to 3-D printed models of fossil skulls.
At left: UCMP Assistant Director Mark Goodwin leads a group through tours of the museum. Photo credit Jun Ying Lim. Top right: Museum scientist Erica Clites talks about a fossil ammonite. Photo credit Renske Kirscholtes. Bottom right: a young visitor is enamored by baby triceratops skull. Photo credit Renske Kircholtes.
In front of T. rex and friends, UCMP debuted new shirt designs for the year with T. rex rocking sunglasses as well as Bothriocidaris eichwaldi, an echinoid beautifully illustrated by May Blos, a staff illustrator of UCMP between 1965 - 1973. Also available were tote bags featuring images of the Pleistocene McKittrick Fossil Collection! New this year was the debuted selfie booth. Please check out our t-shirt page to get yours! (http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/support.php). We also had visiting Children’s Book Author Illustrator Hannah Bonner come and sign copies of her book “When Fish got Feet, When Bugs got Big and When Dinos Dawned” after her talk.
At left, visiting Children’s book Author-Illustrator Hannah Bonner adds some prehistoric life to the chalkboard. Photo credit Helina Chin. At right. Renske Kircholtes modeling the new T. rex shirt design. Photo credit Renske Kircholtes. Assistant Director Lisa White and her young friend pose with dinos at the Selfie Booth. Photo credit Lisa White.
Fun with Fossils was held on the 3rd floor of Valley Life Sciences and still sparks the magic of discovery with children (and their parents too!). While digging through small sections of matrix, they encountered shark teeth and tiny bones or larger animals. The icing on the cake is a receipt of their very own Junior Paleontologist certificate!
At left, Fun with Fossils activity is enjoyed by the whole family. At right, graduate student Lucy Chang sharing the story of the scale fish with young visitors. Photo credit Jun Ying Lim.
In the VLSB Courtyard, UCMP shared an array of fossils illustrating evidence of changes in taxa over time. The fossils on display include species living at a time when changing climate events lead to an extended ice age and eventually extinction. Also on display were marine fossil invertebrates that matched with the live marine invertebrates on display with the live kelp forest display put on by Integrative Biology. Fossils we featured included giant barnacles, brittle sea stars, sea urchins and corals. On the megafauna side, we had a casts of proboscideans, ancestors to our modern day elephants. In addition, we had the top half of a mastodon skull as well as a cast of a baby mammoth, with UCMP grad students discussing how studying their teeth tell us about the what food was available at the time.
Top left: Ashley Poust and Natalia Villavicencio pose with mammoth fossils. Photo credit Jun Ying Lim Right: Daniel LaTorre discusses a giant fossil barnacle. Photo credit Helina Chin. Bottom left: Camila Souto engaging with visitors about fossils in climate change. Photo credit Renske Kircholtes.
UCMP Director Charles Marshalls speaking about effects of global climate change on California fauna and flora
Past the courtyard, we had a variety of speakers from the UCMP and IB communities who shared their how their research relates to global climate change in the lecture halls. UCMP museum scientist Pat Holroyd and UCMP Director Charles Marshalls presented as well as visiting professor Julia Sigwart.
Graduate student Eric Holt, undergraduate Armita Manazadefah and Post Doctorial Candidate Brian Rankin engaging visitors in the story of McKittrick Fossils. Photo credit Lucy Chang. At right, a young visitor takes a look at tiny marine invertebrate fossils presented by the Finnegan Lab. Photo credit Jun Ying Lim.
Finally in our “Fishbowl” meeting room, UCMP staff and students shared fossils from the ongoing McKittrick restoration project, the digitizing fossilized insects from the Stewart Valley and research regarding the mass extinction of plants at the end of the Permian done by the Looy Lab; all that speak to “Our Changing Planet."
Cal Day at UCMP would not have been possible without the help of the UCMP community! Thank you!
Activity in the Fishbowl at UCMP on CalDay 2016. Photo/gif credit Renske Kircholtes.
2016 Field trip: Ivo Duijnstee, Adiel Klompmaker, Daniel Latorre, Jeff Benca, Sara ElShafie, Niek Willems, Emily Orzechowski, Mackenzie Kirchner-Smith, Seth Finnegan, Nick Spano, Ben Muddiman, Cindy Looy, James Saulsbury, Erica Clites and Zixiang Zhang. Photo by Helina Chin
Learning in the Field
Map of our round trip adventure
The 2016 UCMP Spring Field Trip was my first foray into exploring the world of paleontology in the field. Curators/professors Seth Finnegan and Cindy Looy brought 10 graduate students, postdocs, and a few beguiled tag-alongs like myself to various localities throughout central and southern California and Nevada. Field trips like these are important learning opportunities for future paleontologists and geologists, and a way to use practical skills in the field and see fossils in a greater geological context. The group engaged in a number of data collection and field measuring exercises such as noting the thickness of strata and various stratigraphic and lithologic changes
While reflecting on the trip, graduate student Nick Spano said, “It was super fun and from the perspective of future paleontologists it’s always good to go out into the field, and it was definitely a transformative experience. The fieldwork aspect gives us a hands-on opportunity to see where the stories in the textbook come from and it’s a humbling experience.”
This simple map shows our trip itinerary where we logged about 1,115 miles. Trip stops included the Kettleman Hills, Furnace Creek, Ibex Hills and Sperry Wash, Camp Wash, Chicago Pass, Emigrant Pass, China Ranch, Noonday Mine, Bat Mountain (southern Funeral Mountains), Rowland’s Reef (near Lida, NV), Owens River Gorge, Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Lab, Convict Lake and Mono Lake.
Field Trip Starts:
Saturday: We drove through the Coast Ranges via the US-101 South to Los Gatos Creek County Park (Fresno County) where we set up camp.
Sunday: The Kettleman Hills
The next morning we set out to explore the Kettleman Hills together with professor Nick Swanson-Hysell's (Earth and Planetary Sciences) Stratigraphy and Earth History class. The sediments that form the hills are Pliocene to Pleistocene in age. During the Pliocene the San Joaquin Basin was a narrow marginal marine basin with a narrow connection with the Pacific Ocean in the north. Sea level fluctuations and tectonic activity resulted in major changes in salinity and temperature, resulting in extinctions of marine invertebrates, and a stepwise transition from shallow marine to fluvial depositional environments. Later that day the Tehachapi Pass took us to other side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains where we camped in Red Rock Canyon State Park.
Monday: Death Valley here we come!
Jeff Benca wandering through Furnace Creek, photo by Niek Willems; lenticular clouds photo credit Seth Finnegan; Mud cracks, Seth for scale and mud layers by Erica Clites; a great wind at Zabriskie Point,photo credit Ivo Duijnstee.
The third day we drove north on Hwy 395 north via Olancha in Owens Valley and across the Darwin Plateau, into Death Valley National Park. Overlooking Panamint Valley, we made a stop at the spectacular Father Crowley Vista Point, before crossing over via Towne Pass to Death Valley – not the park, but the Valley proper. After some time at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, we met up with Torrey Nyborg from Loma Linda University. Torrey took us nearby into an eroded gully that cut through Pliocene-age fluvial-lacustrine deposits. Besides well-preserved bedding surfaces, including ripples and mud cracks (Jeff for scale), we also saw several fossilized tracks of camels, large cats, and birds. After a short visit to a very windy Zabriskie Point, we set-up camp just southeast of the park in Shoshone were we witnessed an incredible sunset with lenticular-shaped clouds.
Tuesday: The Meso- and Neoproterozoic Ibex Hills
Clockwise from top: Saratoga Springs Photo credit James Saulsbury; Strata layers at Saratoga Springs photo credit Ivo Duijnstee; Invertebrate fossils of large ooids and a stromatolite, photos by Erica Clites; Trilobite fossil in the Carrara Formation, photo by Ivo Duijnstee
The next morning we reunited with Nick's group for a joint exploration of the southern part of the Ibex Hills. The four formations visible there are Mesoproterozoic to Neoproterozoic in age, and data collected in these formations figure prominently in Snowball Earth models. Our six-truck caravan kicked up a large dust cloud on the ten miles of dirt roads to Saratoga Spring where we dismounted for our hike from old to younger sediments – starting in the Crystal Spring Formation (older than 1080 Ma). This first section includes various types of stromatolites, and has volcanic intrusions near the top. It is unconformably overlain by the Horse Thief Springs Formation (~770-740 Ma). Next on our menu was the Beck Spring Dolomite Formation with sediments that alternate between carbonate and sililiclastic sediments, packed with interesting features including microbial mats, large ooids, breccias and rip-off clasts. The Kingston Peak Formation that followed is siliciclastic-dominated, and includes sediments that indicate the low-latitude Snowball Earth glaciation (breccias) and tell-tales of conditions that caused the ensuing rapid deglaciation (cap carbonates). Just before sunset, on the way back to our campsite, we jumped 600 million years ahead in time and concluded the day with a visit to the Pleistocene Lake Tecopa that boasts spectacular yet puzzling soft-sediment deformations.
Wednesday: Pahrump-a-pump pump and the Carbonate Factory
Making friends with the local wildlife and the closest we got to the Super Bloom in Death Valley: Joshua tree, photo credit Niek Willems; Rattlesnake, photo credit Seth Finnegan; Desert Gold flower (Geraea canescens), photo credit Helina Chin, Chuckwalla, photo credit Niek Willems; Horned lizard, photo credit Ivo Duijnstee
The formation had many marine invertebrate fossils embedded in the mudstone. Common interpretations for these Neoproterozoic sections demonstrated by the carbonate sediments with algal features and Kingston Peak suggested extensive glaciation of tropical carbonate platform as part of significant and repeated climate events.
We end the warm day with well-deserved date shakes at a China Ranch, a hidden oasis in the Mojave Desert.
Thursday: Bat Mountain and the Lost Burro Formation
From the top: tabulate coral syringoporoid, fossil crinoids and Seth discussing somthing fossily at Bat Mountain, Erica Clites in a Depression Era dugout in Pliocene lake beds, Mackenzie Kirchner-Smith, Cindy Looy, Daniel LaTorre, Nick Spano, Ben Muddiman and James Saulsbury heading to check out some camel footprints, Seth Finnegan photographs Cindy with the tabulate coral. Photos by Helina Chin
We drove along highway Location?? to get to our next destination: The Lost Burro formation in Bat Mountain, the southern range of the Funeral Mountains in Death Valley. The day starts with Seth and Cindy described the task of measuring the changes between strata going up the outcrop. The students devide into teams and log the fossil-rich section which shows a transition of carbonate reefs to more open marine settings.
I joined the field trip in hopes of seeing the super bloom in Death Valley. Super bloom refers to the massive blooming of flowers occurring in spring 2016 due to the excess water associated with El Nino weather patterns. Wild flowers basically carpet the valley and add bright and beautiful yellows, pinks and purples to the otherwise green to red colored rock formations and alluvial flood plains that make up the valley. At every locality we visit there are different plant blooming; we counted more than 40 species.
Friday: We officially left the desert.
Photo above: Checking out more fossils in Bat mountain, photo credit Helina Chin; Archaeocyathids in the field phtos by Ivo Duijnstee and Erica Clites, stromatolite, photo credit Helina Chin, brancing archaeocyathid, photo credit Ivo Duijnstee
We headed to a little place, Rowland’s Reef, surrounded by some short shrubs, wildflowers and Joshua trees in different states of bloom. Seth and Cindy discussed the rock formations and the occurrence of archaeocyathids, cup-shaped marine invertebrates related to sponges. Their presence indicated we were in the Late Cambrian. We also happened upon a rascal stromatolite, likely left behind from another trip as Bureau of Land Management locations do not allow for fossil collecting without a permit. As the day grew warmer, we encountered some local wildlife, rattlesnakes, who readily let us know we were treading on their turf.
Next we visited the Owens River Gorge, a formation of compelling and incredible beauty created by a river downcutting through a tuff, a layer of compressed ash. The ash was deposited after one giant volcanic eruption about 760 thousand years ago (check date) We then made our way to our next location SNARL, the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Lab. SNARL is located in the Long Valley Caldera at the base of some moraines - rocks and land pushed out of place by glaciers. In addition to the breathtaking scenic views, it also offered another treat: natural hot springs. After so many days of hiking exposed outcrops, the hot water collected in the springs was a nice respite.
Saturday: Soda water and Sea Monkeys at Mono Lake
Daniel LaTorre birding and view of Mono Lake, photo credit Helina Chin; Mono Lake, photo credit Cindy Looy; Tufa towers photo credit Ivo Duinjstee
Our last and final day together we ventured out to see the other bodies of water in the Mammoth Lake area. First was Convict Lake and followed by Mono Lake, a highly interesting body of highly alkaline water salted soda water. When snow and ice melt, the run off and dissolved minerals from the Sierras collects at Mono Lake and have contributed to the formation of Tufa towers in the water. Not having a natural outlet, the water itself is salty and full of minerals. This allows only certain types of organisms to live there, including planktonic algae, brine shrimp (also known as Sea monkeys) and alkali flies.
After a delicious lunch at the Burger Barn in Bridgeport, CA, everyone headed back towards the temperate Bay Area. Next year, we head south again towards Anza Borrego near San Diego. See you then!
Daniel LaTorre, Ivo Dunste and Cindy Looy preparing dinner at dusk
This past year, I’ve been working with UCMP Senior Museum Scientist Diane M. Erwin to identify a new fossil species of scentless plant bug (family Rhopalidae) from a Miocene lakebed deposit in Stewart Valley, Nevada. The study developed as a result of my participation as an Undergraduate Research Apprentice (URAP) in UC Berkeley’s Fossil Insect Digitization PEN project (BFIP) funded by the National Science Foundation. The BFIP project is part of the Fossil Insect Collaborative Thematic Collections Network, a group of seven institutions that house our nation’s largest fossil insect collections. Their charge is to database and image these collections for public access online through the iDigBio and iDigPaleo web portals.
Hiep measuring specimens using BFIP images and computer-based analytical software.
Hiep using the microscope camera-lucida setup to make tracings of his specimens.
The Stewart Valley rhopalid is brown-bodied, 6.5-7.5 mm long from head to the tip of the abdomen, has numerous dark spots covering the legs, and the femur of its two back legs is noticeably wider than the others, but shows no evidence of spines. The feature that stands out most however is the striking set of dorsal markings on the insect’s abdomen. In the pictures below, you will notice a figure-8 shaped crest accompanied by four similarly-sized semicircular dots beneath it.
Stewart Valley rhopalid in dorsal view showing the distinctive abdominal markings. Image courtesy of Iyawnna Hazzard.
Stewart Valley rhopalid in side view where one can see similar markings, an enlarged back femur (f) and the long beak (b) typical of hemipteran insects. Image courtesy of Iyawnna Hazzard.
Diane and I worked through a long process of examining species sharing similar characteristics to our specimens. We collaborated with the Essig Museum of Entomology to examine modern counterparts to our fossil and were able to narrow the family down to the Rhopalidae. We then consulted the published literature on rhopalids and used the combination of abdominal markings and other characters to differentiate between species within Rhopalidae. What we found was that the fossil shares a number of its characters with species in several genera, but is closest to those in the subfamily Rhopalinae, tribe Rhopalini. Of especial note is the fossil’s abdominal markings, which are very reminiscent of those on the purported introduced European species, Brachycarenus tigrinus.
I’ll be wrapping up my URAP with a publication later this year detailing our findings about this newly discovered fossil insect and its evolutionary, biogeographic and paleoenvironmental implications. The Nevada landscape of today with its miles of treeless expanse, dry lakebeds (playas), hot summers and cold winters was quite the opposite during the Miocene. Unlike today, Stewart Valley boasted an abundance of rain. A lush forest of dicotyledonous trees and nearby grasslands sporting an array of herbaceous plants surrounded a large lake teeming with aquatic life, its waters sustaining a diverse vertebrate fauna. Indeed, 14.5 million years ago the Stewart Valley was an ideal habitat for scentless plant bugs to thrive and diversify.
San Nicolas Island is a strange, far-away place very familiar to a surprising number of Californians. Thanks to Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins, this island — the most remote of California's eight Channel Islands — and it's native Nicoleño people have been engrained into the imaginations of many elementary school children. My own mind was captivated by this story in the fourth grade when I had the opportunity to conduct fieldwork on San Nicolas Island with Daniel Muhs (U.S. Geological Survey) and my adviser Seth Finnegan in July 2015 I was thrilled! Descending from hundreds of feet above the island’s landing strip I was already able to spot the very reason for my fieldwork- Pleistocene fossil beaches.
San Nicolas Island from above showing its terraced coastline. Marine terraces - records of ancient beaches - are formed by the powerful erosional energy of waves. They are relatively flattened geomorphological features that can serve as convenient pre-leveled platforms for human infrastructure. Hence, San Nicolas Island’s naval base airstrip (the island has been a naval base since the 1940’s) lies atop the island’s seventh terrace, which is the island’s most apparent marine terrace. Photo by D. Günther
Emily standing on a concretion jutting out just below San Nicolas Island’s youngest marine terrace (~80,000 years old). Photo by Seth Finnegan
Carved by the powerful energy of ancient waves, over 11 Pleistocene fossil beaches are terraced (hence their geological name "marine terrace") over the landscape of San Nicolas Island's modest 23 square miles. The youngest fossil beach (~80,000 years old) sits just above present-day sea level and the oldest (~1,200,000 years old) lies atop the island's highest elevation. Fossil mollusc shells — very similar to the kinds you find along California beaches today — abound within these marine terraces. Differences in the species compositions and abundance of these mollusc shells record dynamic ecological changes that occurred in response to glacial-interglacial climatic change during the Pleistocene.
Close-up of marine terrace sediments from one of the island’s oldest marine terraces (~1,200,000 years old). Fossil preservation on this terrace is exceptionally good- with original shell color preserved on many specimens.
My goal on San Nicolas Island is to collect fossil shells from the lowest three marine terraces — which record the last full interglacial cycle (~120,000 – 80,000 years ago). In particular, I am collecting well-preserved fossil Callianax biplicata (common name, purple olive shell) specimens. Using these fossil shells, I am reconstructing paleoenvironmental conditions during the last interglacial period through the use of stable isotopes. The reason this is possible is because shells grow by semi-continuously depositing layers of calcium carbonate. In the same way scientists use tree rings to chronicle the life a tree, I am using shell growth layers to reconstruct the environmental conditions experienced during the lives of molluscs that lived during the last interglacial period.
After collecting fossil C. biplicata from the terraces of San Nicolas Island, Sydney Minges (UCB Integrative Biology and Earth Planetary Sciences undergraduate student) and I sampled tiny holes along shell growth lines and analyzed these samples for carbon and oxygen stable isotope ratios at UC Berkeley's Center for Stable Isotope Biogeochemistry. Taken together, these isotope ratios can be used to reconstruct changes in seasonal, annual, and inter-annual seawater conditions and temperature during the last interglacial period. When combined with paleoecological species abundance and composition data, these paleoenvironmental data will allow me to test whether species lived in environmental regimes during the last interglacial period that are quite different from conditions they experience today, or whether species have tracked their environmental niches from the last interglacial period to the present day.
Left: Emily sampling fossil C. biplicata (purple olive shell) from a terrace on San Nicolas Island; the majority of white shells in photo are C. biplicata specimens. Photo by Seth Finnegan. Top Right: C. biplicata modern shell (specimen in ~1 cm in length). C. biplicata are the most abundant shells on both modern and Pleistocene beaches in southern California. Bottom Right: Sectioned fossil C. biplicata shell; small holes along right side of shell are spots that are being sampled for stable isotope analysis. Photo by Sydney Minges.
San Nicolas Island is only one of my dissertation study areas. Ultimately, I hope to reconstruct the paleoenvironmental and paleoecological conditions of the last interglacial period along much of the coast of southern California. The uniqueness of this Channel Island's geology and biota will leave a lasting impression. Aside from its extensive marine terraces and rich archaeological record, San Nicolas Island also boasts ghostly caliche forests, adorable dwarfed gray foxes called "island foxes", and some of the most pristine rocky intertidal habitats in southern California. Through my work reconstructing the paleoenvironmental and paleoecological characteristics on San Nicolas Island and elsewhere in southern California, I hope to establish a pre-human baseline for how shallow marine environments respond to climate change.
Emily and Dan Muhs on a marine terrace with abundant Giant Coreopsis plants. Photo by Seth Finnegan.
Island fox on San Nicolas Island. Island foxes are dwarfed relatives of mainland California’s gray fox. Adult island foxes weigh about 4 pounds. Photo curtesy of the Island Conservancy.
Caliche forest that dates to the Last Glacial Maximum; fossil root casts- many of which are Giant Coreopsis- are visible. Caliche is a sedimentary rock made of calcium carbonate cement. Photo by Emily Orzechowski.
Intertidal sea urchins living in holes bored into Eocene sandstone on San Nicolas Island.
This work is generously supported by grants from The UC Museum of Paleontology, National Sigma Xi, Berkeley Chapter of Sigma Xi, The UC Berkeley Department of Integrative Biology, The Evolving Earth Foundation, The American Philosophical Association, the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Geological Society of America.
As an English major, I didn’t really know what to expect when I first started my URAP (Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program) appointment for the UC Museum of Paleontology Fossil Insect PEN (Partner to an Existing Network) funded by the National Science Foundation. All I knew was that I’d be handling fossils, and that struck the scientific chord in my imagination in perfect harmony.
Meschelle Thatcher (left) examining the uncatalogued McKittrick bulk asphalt samples for beetle remains and her finds (right).
The Pleistocene Rancho La Brea tar pits in southern California are best known for their extinct exotic animals. However, I’ve learned there is more life in these asphalt seeps than saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, sloths, mastodons and camels. As part of my URAP experience I’ve been sorting the remains of beetles from the asphalt seeps at Rancho La Brea in Los Angeles and those near McKittrick, CA, in the southern San Joaquin Valley. Again, coming from a Humanities-oriented framework, I was slightly overwhelmed when my supervisor, Senior Museum Scientist, Diane Erwin, told me to pull out all the beetles I could find from bulk samples of asphalt recently discovered in the collection that had not yet been catalogued. Surely I was capable of spotting beetles, but I found myself wondering if I should also put aside things that look like legs, fragments of elytra and other beetle body parts? What if these beetle remnants should somehow alter the course of science forever? Ultimately, I found out that these anatomical fragments were indeed cute, but it wasn’t necessary to catalog them as individual specimens. Although not deserving of their own photo shoot, I learned they would be gathered for a group photo.
Meschelle carefully preparing type specimens for their photo session.
Fast forward to this lovely week in April, and I now have plenty of whole beetles really worth looking over. While most of them were easy to spot with the naked eye, I sometimes had to use a 10x magnifying glass to find the really small ones mixed in with the asphalt—the struggle with which I am positive any real paleontologist will identify. Undoubtedly, analyzing these fossils via zoomed in images of them will be particularly helpful. After all, the naked eye can only see so much. And when some of the beetle remains are just a few millimeters in size, we wholeheartedly welcome technology to swoop in and save the day . . . so long as we get the credit for our discoveries.
I have also helped with the imaging of the UCMP type specimens from Rancho La Brea and uploaded several dozen photos of the McKittrick beetles in the effort to digitize the diverse fossil insect collection at UCMP. By doing so, researchers, teachers, students, as well as citizen scientists and interested public all over the world will literally have accessible data at their fingertips to study. The Rancho La Brea type specimens, described and illustrated over 100 years ago, are a wonderful example of how the digitization age is allowing us to see these old collections in a new light.
As I move forward in this project, I will keep you updated about both my progress as an amateur paleontologist and my progress as a lifelong learner of interdisciplinary interests.
By Marianne Brasil and Tesla Monson posted February 29, 2016
Mrs. Charles Camp and her son, Charles Camp Jr., in South Africa (1947-48).
At the time we got involved in what has now become for us - the South Africa project - one of us (Tesla) was soon-to-be a second year graduate student, and the other (Marianne) was about to start her senior year as an undergraduate student here at UC Berkeley.
We began working together in the UC Museum of Paleontology (UCMP) during the summer of 2013, making our way through a massive project and cataloguing exceptional fossil material collected during the UC Africa Expedition of 1947 and 1948. This is the story of that project and the journey that followed.
The UC Africa Expedition
A bit of background for those who may not be familiar with this aspect of UC Berkeley history… as World War II ended, a massive research expedition, dubbed The UC Africa Expedition (UCAE) was just beginning to pick up steam on Berkeley campus. From 1947-1948, the extensive research endeavor became an influential force across numerous fields of study.
During this time, the Expedition also attracted plenty of media attention, resulting in dozens of newspaper articles that were published while the expedition was underway. There were two separate branches of the expedition: the northern branch (led by Wendell Phillips) and the southern branch (led by our very own Charles Camp, director of the UCMP from 1930-49). In addition to all of the fossil material that is now housed in the UCMP, the UCAE brought back an enormous amount of material that, to this day, spans a wide range of libraries, museums, and other repositories on the UC Berkeley campus.
The list below gives you an idea of the amount and diversity of non-fossil materials collected by the expedition and stored outside of the UCMP:
The Museum of Vertebrate Zoology has many mammal specimens that were collected during the UCAE by Thomas Larson, ranging in size from bats and elephant shrews to large antelopes.
The Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology has large amounts of archaeological and ethnographic material, ranging from stone tools to stools, many of which come from the Ovambo people in South Africa. Faunal and archaeological materials collected at the Middle and Late Stone age excavation sites are also stored at Hearst.
The Music Library has a series of recordings of local traditional music from South Africa, recorded by famed ethnomusicologists Laura Boulton and Hugh Tracey.
The Bancroft Library holds many photographs documenting the life of Charles Camp and his family during the expedition. The library also has many photos of local people and their traditions, as well as the landscapes on which they lived.
The UC Botanical Gardens received seeds and living plants that were collected by Robert Rodin, and some of those living plants perpetuate and can still be visited in the African section of the garden.
The University and Jepson Herbaria also have a considerable number of specimens, as well as Robert Rodin’s field notes and correspondences. A complete list of everything collected can be found in his preserved field notes.
Fossil primates at the Evolutionary Studies Institute in Johannesburg, South Africa. Photo by Tesla Monson
Following our curatorial and historical work with this collection, we narrowed our focus to the Plio-Pleistocene fossil assemblage. For a more extensive historical account of the UCAE, and faunal and locality details for the Plio-Pleistocene fossil assemblage, see our recently published paper in PaleoBios (Monson TA et al. 2015).
As we turned our attention to the Plio-Pleistocene assemblage, two undergraduate students who were involved in the curatorial process took on independent projects. Sandy Gutierrez examined the ostrich eggshells and quantified interspecific variation in shell characteristics. And Bogart Marquez, emphasizing the bovids, studied the faunal composition of the different caves in order to make inferences about deposition, taphonomy, and predatory behavior in and around the caves. Both Sandy and Bogart presented their results at the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) conference in Spring 2014.
We also dug into the primate material with the goal of assessing the alpha-taxonomy of the UCMP specimens. This part of the assemblage includes specimens that have been very influential throughout the historical course of monkey taxonomy, and many are still quite controversial. We tag-teamed the project, with Marianne working through the mandibular material as part of her honors thesis and Tesla examining the cranial material. Two then-undergraduates in the Hlusko Lab also worked with the primate material: Kevin Roth examined the juvenile craniodental specimens and Sandy Gutierrez looked at the postcranial material.
Tesla poses for a selfie with Sediba, a South African australopithecine.
The whole group (Tesla, Marianne, Sandy, Bogart, and Kevin) presented our results during a UCMP Fossil Coffee seminar back in Spring 2014 and at the American Association of Physical Anthropologist (AAPA) meeting in April 2014. Fortuitously, our Fossil Coffee presentation was attended by Dominic Stratford, a visiting South African geoarchaeologist from University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. Dominic has become an invaluable collaborator on the multiple monkey projects that evolved out of our initial work in the UCMP and that are still ongoing. These projects led us (and our advisor – Leslea Hlusko) on the next leg of our journey. In summer of 2015, we journeyed to South Africa to collect more monkey data, a trip graciously funded by a grant from the Palaeontological Scientific Trust and two Desmond C. Clark fellowships from the Human Evolution Research Center at UC Berkeley.
The entrance to the hominid vault at the Evolutionary Studies Institute in Johannesburg, South Africa. Photo by Tesla Monson
During our time in South Africa, we studied monkey cranial and dental specimens at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and at the Ditsong Museum of Natural History in Pretoria. While it was an incredible experience and opportunity, we couldn’t help but feel like some of the days stretched on forever - we were in the museum for nine hours at a time, and some days it felt like all we had to eat was chicken, chicken, and more chicken.... which, according to Dominic, actually qualifies as a vegetable in South Africa. Tesla had to tape her thumbs, followed by her index fingers, followed by almost every other finger, to prevent caliper burn, and Marianne had to squint out of one eye for two weeks straight. (But we made sure to take semi-frequent jellybean breaks to preserve our sanity, thanks Leslea!) It may not have felt like it while we were squinting at calipers and working through the burn, but the amount of data collected made the long hours very worthwhile. Not to mention that we were in good company while at University of the Witwatersrand, since original South African hominid fossil material, including the Taung child, Malapa and Sediba, were displayed (complete with spotlights!) in the vault where we were working. Yes, that’s correct – a vault. We were stationed in the Hominid Vault at the Evolutionary Studies Institute, a very serious room fully equipped with a 6-foot vault door with rotating handle, locked by a 4-inch key that looked a hundred years old. Serious business indeed.
When we weren’t measuring and photographing monkeys, we got to take tours of some of the famous cave sites, and wow were they incredible! We also got to meet paleoanthropologist Ron Clarke and see the “Little Foot” hominid remains, which are still in the process of being prepared – an opportunity that has only been offered to only a handful of people in the world. Hey, it pays to be a paleontologist!
The surface layers at Sterkfontein Cave in the Cradle of Humankind, South Africa.
Marianne Brasil, Leslea Hlusko and Dominic Stratford underground in Sterkfontein Cave, South Africa. Photo by Tesla Monson
Marianne Brasil and Tesla Monson in Sterkfontein Cave. Photo by Leslea Hlusko.
Famed anthropologist Ron Clarke holding the cranium of “Littlefoot,” a recently discovered South African hominid.
In the evenings while we were in Pretoria, we ate our delivery dinners (mostly chicken) on the floor of Leslea’s room, and sometimes it was in candlelight because of this odd, but normal “it’s just a part of life here,” load-shedding phenomenon that causes small-scale city blackouts. This was only one of the quirks of South Africa that we encountered. Some others included…
No picture on a restaurant menu was ever actually replicated in person. Dishes served were a surprise every time!
The GPS had a fondness for telling us to “Turn left at unknown road”, as if that’s helpful.
On more than one occasion we had to let baby goats get out of the road before we could continue on our way. Ok, that last one wasn’t so bad… 🙂
Following all of the hard work of data collection, we finally got to explore South Africa. We set off - with Tesla driving on the wrong side of the road, in the wrong side of the car, and with the clutch on the left – to our rental at “Zonk Lake”, which was a lone cottage on a tiny lake. So, we basically rented a lake. It’s not often you get to take a romantic vacation with your labmate…
Giant’s Castle reserve in the Drakensberg. Photo by Tesla Monson
During the couple of days that we were in the Drakensberg region, we went out to enjoy the natural beauty of the landscape as well as the San petroglyphs of Giant’s Castle. We were also able to see our study organisms in their (not so) natural habitat when we ran into chacma baboons in a park area while out for a hike. On a more serious note, it was an honor and a privilege to tour the Apartheid Museum and the Nelson Mandela Memorial while we were in KwaZulu-Natal, and we highly recommend it to any visitors in the area.
San petroglyphs on the rocks at Giant’s Castle, South Africa. Photo by Tesla Monson
Chacma baboons (Papio hamadryas) eating grass at the Giant’s Castle resort in the Drakensberg. Photo by Tesla Monson
A panel from the Apartheid Museum at the Mandela Capture Site near Howick in KwaZulu-Natal. Photo by Tesla Monson
Taking the kayak out on Zonk Lake. Photo by Tesla Monson
Marianne practices the art of braai, South African barbeque. Photo by Tesla Monson
During the evenings, we caught Marianne up on the childhood media she never had, pulling from the random assortment of VHS cassettes that someone left on the shelf of our Zonk cabin: Casper, Mask of Zorro, Daredevil – all the greats. We also went kayaking in the early morning, and had true South African “braai” (AKA barbeque) in the evenings. You know what they say — when in South Africa...
After Zonk Lake, we left early for the nine-hour drive to Kruger National Park. Luckily, awesome street signs and plenty of bad jokes from Tesla dotted our journey. When we finally made it to Kruger, we quickly loaded up on snacks, brewed our coffee at 5:30 in the morning, and set out to drive through the park. The first thing we saw was a rhino (spotted by Tesla). We had heard that some people never see anything, so the mood was gleeful right way.
Then, maybe 20 meters down the road past the rhino, we saw an elephant (spotted by Marianne). The day just got better after that. We saw giraffes, lions, hippo, impala, hyena, kudu, crocodiles, warthogs, TONS of birds, baboons, buffalo, zebra, mongoose, and many other cool critters – including loads and loads of baby animals. Oh the babies!
A white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Photo by Tesla Monson
Southern ground hornbills (Bucorvus leadbeateri) in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Photo by Tesla Monson
Giraffes, impala and warthogs at a watering hole in Kruger National Park, South Africa.
An African elephant (Loxodonta africana) in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Photo by Tesla Monson
A baby spotted hyaena cub in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Photo by Tesla Monson
A zebra in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Photo by Tesla Monson
A warthog also known as “Radio Africa,” runs with its tail up. Photo by Tesla Monson
A vervet monkey hangs out near a rest area in Kruger Park, South Africa. Photo by Tesla Monson
Overall, our trip was really productive, and we had a really excellent time. We collected lots of data, generated many hypotheses we’re currently testing, and raised questions that we are working to answer. We will both be presenting at the AAPA meeting in April 2016 on some of our findings from the data collected on this trip. We also got to know each other really, really well and we’re both happy to say, we’d go on another data collection trip to Africa together anytime!
The sun sets over Kruger National Park, South Africa. Photo by Tesla Monson
Assistant Director Mark Goodwin and his project collaborators (see Feb. 1 blog post) made a surprising discovery while collecting microvertebrates, turtles, and fish. Within a small area of exposure in the Late Jurassic Agula Shale in the Tigray Province, just south of Mekele, Ethiopia, were the first sauropod dinosaurs ever reported from Ethiopia!
The team found mostly partial bones and bone fragments, and the local school kids delighted in holding Ethiopia's first sauropod dinosaur bones.
Mark labeling some of the bones with Conny Rasmussen (Univ. of Utah) and local school kids looking on.
Million Alameyeho & Samuel Getachew (Addis Ababa U.) and Tadesse Berhanu (Oklahoma State U,) with local school kids
Close up of some of the many sauropod bones found by the field party.
Tony and Liz by a billboard advertising the movie Demain, in Paris.
In December 2015 UCMP faculty curator Tony Barnosky and Stanford paleoecologist Liz Hadly attended The United Nations Conference on Climate Change to premiere a movie opening in Paris. The movie, Demain, was inspired by the 21-authored study that produced a 2012 Nature paper on tipping points. The film opens with Tony and Liz summarizing global change issues facing the world today.
Tony states, "the movie is all about solutions and is very uplifting." It features solutions being implemented in San Francisco and Oakland, in addition to many other places around the world. It was produced by and stars Mélanie Laurent, a well-known French actress, and Cyril Dion. The movie is getting rave reviews in Europe and the English version Tomorrow (see video) is anticipated to be released in the USA in the spring.
Tony and Liz (far left) with cast members of the film, Demain.
Research by Faculty Curator and Professor Tony Barnosky and the Anthropocene Working Group continues to support the strong need for designating a distinct geological epoch, the Anthropocene. Landscape-altering human activities leave behind distinctive evidence (plastics, aluminum, concrete, black carbon, among others) in the sedimentary record. The group has received widespread media attention and recent articles in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post demonstrate the extent to which interested in topic crosses academic and non-academic boundaries.
On a related topic Tony is the co-author on a research article by Ceballos et al, 2015, on the sixth mass extinction, and it was the #3 most popular academic paper (and shared and read outside and within academia) published in 2015 according to Almetrics. It was also #15 in the top 100 Science papers listed in Discover Magazine.